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Chicago’s Uplift High has just 107 students. Can it be saved?

Parents and former students describe Uplift Community High School as a “mainstay” of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Sophomore Shianne Donley says the school has opened doors for her through field trips, social justice organizations and “experiences…that can impact your future.”

But the school is in a difficult situation.

Although Uplift was founded with the expectation that its students would be primarily from the Uptown area, Chicago Public Schools did not recognize it as a local school. Without a consistent stream of incoming students or draws such as international baccalaureate or performing arts programs, there are 107 students enrolled. Last year, the school used less than 10% of the area.

While there is a moratorium on closing schools by 2025, local community members and advocates fear Uplift could fail regional farm in the vicinity. Angela Clay, a member of Uplift’s first graduating class of 2009, cited the example of nearby Stewart Elementary School, which was one of 50 schools closed in 2013 due to declining enrollment. The site now houses luxury apartments in Uptown.

“If you bleed a school of kids going into unaffordable, low-income housing in the neighborhood, you bleed the building,” Clay said at a news conference before a meeting of the Chicago Board of Education last month. “But it’s an amazing building and we’re not going to let the hands of developers touch it.”

Now, advocates and Uplift Local School Board officials are calling on CPS to make the building a neighborhood high school by setting attendance limits. That would establish an “organic flow” of students from Uptown, said Mark Kaplan, community representative for the Uplift Local School Board.

A CPS spokesperson noted that in the district’s high school choice system, “many CPS high schools do not have attendance limits.”

Currently, most of Uptown goes to Nicholas Sen High School in Edgewater, a neighborhood school about two miles away with more than 1,500 students.

Uplift is considered a citywide program, meaning any student in Chicago can apply, and no one will be automatically admitted if they don’t apply. Uplift offers general education, special education, vocational and technical education. About 55% of students are black and 26% are Latino, according to CPS data from last school year. More than 70% of students are low-income.

Uplift offers early college and STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and math — programs and works to showcase those opportunities when recruiting students. But instead of recruiting a new class each year, advocates want the school to be filled with students from the surrounding area.

Kaplan said he was involved in setting up the school and that CPS “promised” the founders of Uplift to do so.

Students leave Uplift Community High School in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood on Oct. 28.

According to the school’s charter, it was founded under Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 2010 Revitalization Plan, which aimed to close failing schools and open new ones. CPS closed Arai Middle School in 2005 and was looking for suggestions on what to do with the space.

A key part of the Renaissance 2010 plan was an increase in charter schools, which was one of the proposals considered for Uplift. But community members supported a proposal created by Arai teachers to create what was envisioned as a predominantly neighborhood school, Kaplan said.

The original founding documents said Uplift was to serve 460 students in grades 6 through 9, with plans to add a high school level in the future. Kaplan said the plan later shifted to Uplift becoming a high school.

The school’s vision was that Uplift would develop relationships “within the Uptown community,” according to the document.

“The majority of students are expected to come from the Uptown community, although students from outside of Uptown may attend if space is available,” the document said.

CPS also said it would work with the community to “develop an attendance plan for the school,” which opened in fall 2005.

Seventeen years later, families must choose Uplift directly, as Cheyenne’s mother, Robyn Johnson, did. Johnson, a parent representative on the local school board, said Uplift’s dual enrollment offerings, social justice initiatives and her ability as a parent to participate in curriculum development were major draws for her and her daughter.

Robin Johnson of the Uplift High School Local School Board in front of the school on October 28.  Her daughter is a sophomore at Uptown School.

One of the opportunities the school gave Shyan was to see the play 1919, which explores the resistance of blacks in Chicago. Johnson helped develop interdisciplinary lesson plans focusing on the Black Panther Party.

“I’ve never seen a school do that,” Johnson said.

At a Board of Education meeting last month, Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jackson Potter urged the Board to make sure Uplift isn’t another “failed experiment,” citing the example of Urban Prep Academies, whose charters the council voted to withdraw later in the meeting.

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In the whole area, the KPS is experiencing recruitment is reducedlosing its status as the nation’s third-largest school system.

And CPS has a number of other tiny high schools that also struggle to maintain a robust population: Hirsch Metropolitan High on the South Side is about the same size as Uplift, with about 100 students, according to the CPS website. Austin College and Career Academy lists about 175 students, while another West Side building, Manley Career Academy High, has only about 70 students.

At the board meeting, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez attributed some of those drops among seventh- and eighth-graders to the current middle school admissions process. Martinez said he’s already being asked about plans for his own son, who is only in 6th grade.

“I can’t help but relate it to how difficult it is for our high school students when they’re thinking about choosing a high school,” Martinez said.

Part of CPS’s plan to address this problem is in addition to plans for 2022-23 is a “recovery” year.consists of “a redesign of our admissions and enrollment policies and processes” and includes “reinvestment and planning for the future of neighborhood schools,” according to the presentation.

“We think we have a lot of opportunity to really look at this policy and get back to our original goals of equal access,” Martinez said.



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