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Why Collins?

The closing of a west-side high school with plum facilities has locals wondering about CPS's plans for the building.

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Grady Jordan was on hand when Collins High School opened its doors in 1976. Now he's watching the school board shut it down.

"I know why they opened Collins--the community demanded it," says Jordan, the school's first principal. "They really had no choice."

And why are they closing it? "Ah, that's something else," he says. "I spent over 30 years in this system as a teacher, principal, and administrator, and let me tell you something I learned after all those years: nothing is as it appears on the surface."

Chicago Public Schools head Arne Duncan and school board president Michael Scott say they're closing Collins because of falling enrollment and poor test scores at the school, in Lawndale on the city's west side. Freshmen won't be accepted beginning next fall, and over the year Duncan and Scott will sift through proposals from educators vying for board approval to operate a new school (or schools) at the facility. They say nothing has been decided yet.

Like many west-siders, Jordan is skeptical of the board's explanation. True, Collins's enrollment has been falling--with a capacity of 1,500, it dropped from 1,052 in 1997 to 869 last year. But enrollment is falling at high schools all over the west side, as the area loses population due to diminishing housing stock and rising rents. If a local high school had to be closed because of falling enrollment, the board could just as easily have closed Manley, located only a few blocks away and housed in an older building, Jordan points out.

As for the school's academic performance, Collins is pretty much what it's always been: a low-scoring, high-poverty neighborhood school offering strong vocational training to anyone who lives in the district--no admissions tests, recommendations, or connections required, as they are at selective-enrollment schools. "If you live here we take you," Jordan says. "We open our doors to everyone."

Over the last few years Collins's test scores have stayed roughly the same. In 1997 the school's composite ACT score was 14.8; in 2005 it was 14.6. (The city average is 17.1, out of a possible 36.) Reading scores on the state standardized test actually rose last year: 21 percent of Collins students scored at or above state standards, up from 16 percent in 2004. But as Jordan points out, board officials view test scores selectively. If Collins were a new school, started as part of Mayor Daley's Renaissance 2010 initiative, officials would likely trumpet last year's increase as a sign that the program is beginning to succeed. As it stands, Collins's scores were comparable to those at the three local high schools--Manley, Marshall, and Crane--the board is leaving open.

So why Collins? Board insiders explain that certain collateral benefits come from closing any school. Closings weaken the Chicago Teachers Union--especially if the school is turned over to a charter or contract operation on reopening. They neutralize the local school council, often a nettlesome bunch. And they can be good PR: to outsiders who aren't affected by the closing, they make Duncan and CPS look capable of making the tough decisions necessary given the looming budget crisis.

But in the case of Collins there's an even more compelling reason cited by virtually every teacher I talked to during a recent visit: the building. Located at 1313 S. Sacramento, in Douglas Park, Collins currently has one of the best high school facilities on the west side, with amenities including a seven-lane swimming pool, a gym that seats 1,500, a culinary arts classroom equipped with eight stoves and four sinks, recently remodeled science labs, and, perhaps most impressive, a fully equipped auto repair shop with four lifts. The fear of locals and teachers is that once Collins reopens it will no longer serve the neighborhood. "They want to take our building and give it to someone else," says one veteran teacher. "Probably a charter school or several charter schools, who will pay their teachers less than we get. They'll spruce it up a bit and call it progress when it reopens."

School board spokesman Peter Cunningham says there's nothing sinister or underhanded about the plans for Collins. We're trying to "improve educational opportunities for North Lawndale," he says.

According to Jordan, CPS was forced to build Collins in the mid-70s after protests and rallies spurred by community activists. "There were three main activists: Geneva Bey, Rose Betts, and Nola Bright. We called them the three Bs: Bey, Betts, and Bright. They were tough--we wouldn't have got the building without them. Back then the community was overcrowded. Marshall was running double shifts, and there wasn't any room at Farragut or Manley. We needed a new school, and folks stayed on them until they built it."

Collins "was a magical place," Jordan says. "I picked the colors--purple and gold. They were my college colors. We had the first homecoming parade on the west side. In 1980 we had a big basketball game against Manley. The gym was packed--the whole west side came out for that one."

At age 71, Jordan's still a formidable presence at Collins, even though he hasn't worked there since the mid-80s. (He retired from the system in 1995.) A large framed picture of him hangs on the wall, and when he visits people stop to say hello and thank him for speaking out against the closing.

Like most of the activists and residents who spoke at the board's hearings, Jordan wants Collins to remain open to all neighborhood youngsters. In some ways, he says, he feels like he's waging an old battle. "It took a fight to open this school, and it's going to take a fight to keep it open to the community," he says. "You need neighborhood high schools with all these kinds of equipment and special features that are open to all no matter what you score or who your parents know. You know somebody's going to get Collins. I want to make sure it's the community."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Flynn.

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