The Chicago Public Schools college-prep experience means different things in different parts of our city. This summer, Hancock High School on the city’s Southwest Side regained its “college prep” title. Hancock had this title when it opened at the former Lourdes High School location near 55th and Pulaski in 1998. Then . . it just kinda . . . faded away. Today, our elite title didn’t mean much when the heat stopped working at 10 a.m. Students kept their coats on all day. They left at 3:30 p.m. like any other regular school day.
Last night, teachers received an email from our principal that “there was a gas leak in the building. People’s Gas was called and that issue was resolved. The building was given the all-clear and normal activities resumed. Later this morning a large [water] leak was discovered in the principal’s conference room.” When classrooms were checked, many did not have heat and others had major water leaks from the heating and cooling units.
Crews worked late into the night and assured administration that there would be heat today, the first day back from winter break, a break that was originally planned until January 7 (before the strike).
In the email, our principal outlined three options for dealing with the situation today. Closing a school without heat was not one of the options. A principal doesn’t have the power to decided this. So staff showed up by 8:15 a.m. ready for plan A, B, or C. Despite the shorter winter break, lots of students showed up, too. When the first bell rang, about six rooms did not have heat. At 10 a.m. the heat in the entire building went out.
At Hancock College Prep, teachers teach and students learn in an old Catholic high school building still attached to a deserted convent. The all-girls high school held a few hundred students. Today, we have about one thousand. Most of the space on the west side of the building is useless. Imagine three floors with long hallways, like a hospital, and little rooms with small closets and sinks where nuns used to live. We can’t do much except store materials and make sure students don’t find they’re way there.
Two years ago, $10 million were spent on the exterior of the building: roof, windows, gutters, tuck pointing. The 1920s building needed a lift. But the inside ended up worse off because of it. Water fountains stop working. Electrical outlets didn’t have current. Last year, we had 35 brand new computers ready for students to use but no room that could accommodate them. It took our administration all last year to fight for our rooms to have more than one working outlet. To date, four classrooms still only have one working outlet.
With 219 heating and “cooling” units, it really could be one person’s job to kick and fix those all day long. But in July, the school lost an engineer and–for eight weeks–functioned with a substitute engineer. We know what can happen in a classroom with a substitute teacher for eight weeks. Imagine the consequences on the maintenance of a school this old with a sub.
We have a tiny gym that would be functional in a Pre-K building, no locker rooms, not enough lockers in general, no space for a computer lab teachers can reserve.
But we do have a highly committed administration, teachers, staff, and students. On the Southwest Side, Hancock has a reputation for being a safe school. And we’re a school that has also shown how changes in instructional practices and improvements in culture can change students’ lives and educational options.
As I walked down the aisle in our cold auditorium today, which housed the classes from colder classrooms, I heard one teacher look at rows of students and say, “Today is going to be difficult.” Then he went on with a lesson. Another colleague began an overview of the next project. Another colleague handed out written essays that students were going edit. We did our best today.
Our students, however, deserve the most praise. They were in classes with their coats. By 1:45, my room was freezing. But they still engaged in a conversation about decision making. One student shivered every once in a while.
At the end of the day, students chatted and chewed bubble gum by their lockers. They smiled. They slowly went home.
THIS is why our students deserve better. They—too—deserve a state-of-the art building to engage in a true college-prep experience—just like other neighborhoods have or will have very soon when construction is finished. Our school community proved—in quantitative and qualitative data—that our school has transformed itself. Our district, as our principal put it, needs to invest in this success. Maybe if we had more affluent families, it would.
We’re supposed to have heat in the school tomorrow. But the picture above indicates how many rooms will be out of commission. It’s not up to a principal, though, to close the school without heat. This decision is left to the bureaucracy of the Network and Central Office leaders that would likely not want any young adult they cared about shivering as she tried to learn.
As of 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Hancock High School did have heat and seven classrooms remained on the out-of-commission list.
At 12:55 p.m. Friday, the main office bulletin board shows four rooms that are on the out-of-commission list. Those classes are meeting in the library, another classroom, or in the auditorium.
On Monday, January 7, I found out that the decision to close schools is not a Network decision. It is left to a department in Central Office decision.
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