At West Side Chicago school, kids go without teachers

At a high school with dwindling enrollments, teacher absences hit hard.

March 11, 2014

WBEZ/Linda Lutton
Uriah White, a junior at Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, is livid that he’s had no science or English teachers this year. The high school’s small size has exacerbated problems there with teacher absences.

Some of the city’s high schools are shrinking. In fact, some are shrinking so dramatically, it’s questionable whether students are getting access to a basic education.

Take the Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy on the city’s West Side, where students have spent much of this year without key teachers.

If you ask seniors Kendale Brice and Janiqua Johnson to list the teachers they’re missing at Austin Business, it sounds like they’re reading from a job board:

"We need a music teacher," Kendale says.

"We need a Spanish teacher," Janiqua adds.

"Last year we didn’t have a Spanish teacher, so we had to take Spanish online," Kendale says.

"We need a science teacher—which is biology and forensic science," says Janiqua. "We need an English teacher for juniors and seniors." 

Keyshawn Fields, a junior slated to take the ACT exam next month, says he had a biology teacher “for maybe three weeks at the beginning of the year, then she was gone.” Music and Spanish—requirements for graduation—are offered online only, students say.

“It’s hard, because sometimes some students (are) physical learners—like, they need to be in person with a teacher, and that doesn’t help being online,” says senior Moeisha Webb, who’s in the online music class.

WBEZ interviewed a dozen students at Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, and all of them told the same story. Their core courses in English and science have been taught mostly by substitutes this year—sometimes a different substitute every day—meaning no homework, and often no classwork.  One student said students are passed automatically since there are no teachers.

The school’s principal, Wayne Issa, says Austin Business has been hit by a string of teachers out on disability leaves—something he has no control over. Three teachers took other jobs. He says it’s hard to fill temporary positions. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’d rather sub (day-to-day) and not be responsible for teaching,” he says.

But there’s another problem: Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy is a school that’s been losing enrollment. And its tiny size—186 students total—exacerbates its problems.

“What happens is the school is so tiny, that when there are absences, it’s felt throughout the school. For instance, I only have one science teacher. So if I had a science department, it would be easier to absorb one teacher being gone,” says Issa.

The students notice. “We have like 40 seniors. That’s not a senior class, that’s a classroom,” says Kendale Brice.

Austin Business’ freshman class has even fewer students—31. With Chicago’s move to per pupil budgeting, it’s unclear whether such a small school will be able to afford the minimum seven teachers a high school usually needs—or even stay in business.

Issa says he has the money for English and science teachers, but he says enrollment is a concern.

“With the amount of high schools we have there’s definitely competition amongst those. And with student population declining…with more choice for parents to go to different places, it just makes sense that (enrollment) is going to go down," said Issa. "Recruitment is becoming one of the skills that principals like me need to be able to engage in… in order to exist.”

Michael Bakalis, president of American Quality Schools, a nonprofit charter school operator that used to run Austin Business and Entrepreneurship, says he tells parents or communities interested in starting a school that they need a minimum number of students to function.

“It’s unlikely you’re going to be able to survive financially and do everything you should be doing unless you have about 200-250 kids to start,” Bakalis says. “And then probably build it up to at least 400 or 500 eventually.”

Bakalis’ group used to run Austin Business as a “contract” school. American Quality Schools gave up the school three years ago, and CPS has run it since.

Some people believe there are simply too many high schools in Chicago. A West Side charter high school, Chicago Talent Development, announced this year it is phasing out, unable to attract enough students. Other schools with low enrollments are skimping on teachers, activities and electives.

And even new schools like Austin Business—which was started as a Renaissance 2010 school after CPS closed down Austin High School in 2004 for poor performance—are challenged. All three schools that opened in the Austin High building under Renaissance 2010 are struggling to attract kids, and struggling to keep promises of a better education. One of the schools, Austin Polytechnical Academy, had to write a grant this year to be able to pay for a college counselor; per pupil funding from CPS did not cover the cost.

But ironically, Chicago is adding high schools. The district recently approved seven new charters—five of them with high school seats—meaning students will be spread even thinner across schools like Austin. The district has said it will not close any schools for five years.

Uriah White, a junior at Austin Business, is livid that he’s had no science or English teachers this year.

“This ACT thing is very serious for me,” says White. “This third year is my most important year: (for the) ACT,  (to) see what colleges would want me for their schools. But the way it’s looking now—” he groans. “I know for sure it’s going to be a very short few amount of colleges that are going to want any of the kids from Austin.”

Uriah says he took a science book home to study on his own.

Junior Keyshawn Fields says he will tackle the English portion of the ACT “just off instincts.”  But the science portion, he says, “I’m going in there blind.”

Two school days after WBEZ interviewed students, Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy said it had filled all open teaching positions—except for one that was vacated Friday.

Linda Lutton is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her @WBEZeducation.