Harper High School garnered national attention after eight students were killed during the 2012 school year. When then-first lady Michelle Obama made a somber visit to address gun violence, many students and staff said they felt like their plight was finally being recognized.
Harper closed its doors for good on Friday, and now students and staff say they feel abandoned.
Harper was one of four South Side schools that were slowly phased out over the past four school years to make way for the new $80 million Englewood STEM High School, which opened in 2019. Unlike the other schools, which closed early after students left the dying programs, 19 Harper students stayed until the very end and graduated this month.
Derrick Alleyne, who spent 14 years as dean of the school, said the love and care the staff gave to the students — many of whose lives were steeped in trauma — does not show up in test scores or data.
Drama teacher Michael Buino has refused to pack up his classroom. The room has Christmas lights draped from the ceiling, and the walls are covered with pictures and posters.
“The students helped put together the room,” he said. “It is so bright and beautiful. The idea was to make it a welcoming place.”
Buino, who had 11 students become finalists in the prestigious August Wilson Monologue Competition, a feat for a small struggling school, refused to take another job even as the school year ran out.
“I wanted to put all my energy and focus into the students until the very end,” he said. “And so I don’t know what I will do next.”
Even as staff, alumni, parents and students knew the last day was coming, they held out hope that Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot would give the school another chance. One alumni group even requested a meeting with the mayor to present a plan they worked on with the staff.
“How can it be that the school has only 19 students graduating? When I was here 300 to 400 students graduated. It hurts,” said James Simmons Snyder, who graduated from Harper in 1980.
The alumni and staff want to revive the school by bringing back some of the trades it once had, like an auto mechanics program. They said the trade programs once launched alumni into good jobs.
Lightfoot’s office has not specifically responded to their request for a meeting or their plan.
Declining enrollment and more nearby options
Outgoing CPS CEO Janice Jackson counts the new high school in Englewood as one of her accomplishments. She insisted that Harper and the three other high schools needed to be closed because 90% of potential students in the neighborhoods were choosing to attend other schools.
Jackson pointed out that these high schools had dwindling populations, with Harper having only 134 students when it’s closure was announced in 2018.
And since the school district provides money for schools based on enrollment, as Harper’s student body got smaller, so did its budget and what it could offer.
But activists have long argued these schools were doomed by decisions made by city and school district leaders that put them in competition with other schools, while not giving them the resources to compete.
Over the past 20 years, Harper both benefited and, activists claim, has been hurt by efforts to improve schools. In 2008, it was “turned around,” a process in which all of its staff had to reapply for their jobs and 80% of them were replaced.
Patrick Tilford, one of the teachers who survived the turnaround, said he thinks the maneuver hurt the school since so many teachers were forced out.
“It was like you cut the umbilical cord to the community,” he said.
In 2011, the school was given a $5 million federal school improvement grant. That money was used to pay for extra social workers, deans and counselors. They also created a cafe so students in the culinary arts program could learn how to serve food and interact with customers.
But at the same time, the school district was opening charter schools and new alternative schools. These new schools, run by private operators, offered the promise of college. Some of the alternative schools even offered the promise of an accelerated diploma.
The school staff said some years in June, they would have more than 250 students projected to attend Harper, but by the time September rolled around there were only 80. School officials said they were told the students enrolled in charter schools instead.
Meanwhile, Englewood’s population was dropping. In the end, fewer residents, greater competition and declining enrollment were too much to overcome.
“It is almost like we ran a race and did our very best just to be told it wasn’t good enough,” Alleyne said.