For parent Bobbie Brown, the fight to save Harper High School is personal. Seven of her own children attended the school, along with numerous aunts, uncles, cousins, and her husband.
So, when CPS voted in 2018 to close the school–despite overwhelming and vocal opposition from the Englewood community–Brown vowed not to give up the fight.
Today, just a year away from the final phase out of Harper’s last student class, Brown and community allies are pushing to save Harper by transforming it into a Sustainable Community School (SCS). Using the model of Walter H. Dyett High School, which CPS was forced to reopen after a 34-day hunger strike by parents, the school community is demanding CPS pump new resources into rebuilding the historic high school.
Harper has suffered the same fate of many CPS schools serving a majority Black student population. The oldest neighborhood school in Englewood, it has been the victim of numerous turnarounds and other fad programs guaranteed to work miracles, charter encroachment, and years of budget cuts that have left the school a skeleton of what it once was.
But it wasn’t always that way. Brown remembers when the school was bustling with students and programs like band, choir, wood and auto shop, full-fledged winning girls and boys sports teams, and theater. Harper was the bedrock of the West Englewood community, graduating thousands of students over its 100-year history.
Then came the charters, whose enrollment growth in the neighborhood over the last decade tracks enrollment declines at Harper and other neighborhood schools. As students left, programs and services vanished, causing more students to leave in search of schools that offered fuller programs.
Today, there are 1,067 students in the Harper attendance area enrolled at 124 different schools. But the CPS decision to close the school decimated enrollment. Only 49 students remain in the junior and senior class and Brown says many in the community think the school is already gone.
The plight of Harper is eerily similar to that of Walther H. Dyett High School, said Shannon Bennett, deputy director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) which led the years’ long fight to save Dyett, the last remaining open enrollment high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood.
“Just like at Dyett, CPS wants Englewood families to look at things based on the rules they set,” Bennett said. “But we wanted a whole new vision and new set of rules for the school, one that was dictated by the community, not downtown.”
By all accounts, Dyett was dead. In its last academic year, 2014 – 2015, the school had only 12 students, who were forced to suffer the insult of entering their school through the back door, with a bare bones curriculum that included art and P.E. classes online. Still, parents and their community allies fought back, presenting CPS with a well-researched, widely supported school transformation plan, staging rallies and sit ins at City Hall and taking arrests.
When parents began their historic hunger strike, city hall and CPS initially tried to ignore it. But when parents confronted then-mayor Rahm Emanuel at a public hearing, forcing him off the stage and into a private meeting with them, the district backed down. Dyett would reopen and eventually become a Sustainable Community School. In its first year, the school attracted 150 new freshmen and will eventually graduate over 500 students..
“Four years ago, they told us to give up. Don’t fight, Dyett is done,” said Jitu Brown, National Director of the Journey for Justice Alliance and a Dyett hunger striker. “Today Dyett is a Level 1 school, with $14 million in new investments and programs. And the same can happen at Harper. There are enough students in Englewood to support two high schools.”
At a press conference in November to announce the campaign to save Harper, parents demanded the school be revitalized and they pointed out the discrepancies in programs offered at Harper compared to other schools in more affluent, white neighborhoods.
Amundsen, a North Side high school in Ravenswood, was struggling with declining enrollment, dwindling programs and a Level 2 CPS rating several years ago. But CPS and the city made huge investments in the school, which now offers International Baccalaureate (IB) and Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, over a dozen Advanced Placement classes, 25 athletic teams, 40 clubs and a student health center.
Amundsen now boasts the highest CPS rating, Level 1 + and parents didn’t have to fight, get arrested or starve themselves to rebuild their school.
Bobbie Brown believes Harper could experience the same kind of rebirth with a commitment from Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS.
“We’re calling on the mayor to reverse the CPS decision to close Harper and restore it as a fully funded, Sustainable Community School,” she said. “We’ll never know the gifts our children have–if they can sing or act or be a scientist–if they’re not exposed to those things in school. Why don’t our Black children matter?”
Sustainable Community Schools have been proven to improve achievement, attendance, graduation rates and community satisfaction with their schools. CTU won a commitment to fund 20 such schools in its 2016 contract and the district renewed the program during the October strike. Those schools are transforming education for Black and brown students across the city.
To achieve their goals, Harper parents and students are demanding a meeting with the mayor, collecting hundreds of petition signatures in support of their campaign, hosting town hall meetings and visits with elected officials. And students are at the forefront of the fight.
“Why don’t people believe in the Black children of Englewood,” Harper student David Brown asked at the November press conference. “Why can’t we have hopes and dreams? Why isn’t our school fully funded with resources like many other schools? Why hasn’t anyone invested in us?”
Jitu Brown has an answer.
“The issue in CPS is inequity. It’s never been failing schools. It’s never been bad schools and it’s never been bad teachers,” he said. “Harper isn’t a failing school. We don’t have failing schools. As the public, we’ve been failed.”