Taft HS had its shares of issues over the decades
Editor’s note: As part of the newspaper’s 80th anniversary, we are periodically going to look back at some of the biggest issues that we have covered during that time.
In this issue, we are looking at Taft High School, which is considered one of the top neighborhood schools in Chicago. Over the years, we have covered a multitude of issues surrounding the school. Let’s look back.
by BRIAN NADIG
Twenty-five years ago enrollment at Taft High School, 6530 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., consisted of 15 percent local students and 85 percent from the outside of its attendance boundaries. In 2020 those numbers have reversed.
By the fall of 2021, Taft’s enrollment is projected to hit 4,000, which is about 2,500 more students than in 1999.
The school’s popularity has skyrocketed so much that it received its own freshman campus, located at 4071 N. Oak Park Ave., and many realtors report that selling a home which falls within Taft’s attendance boundaries is a strong selling point.
However, things were not as rosy at Taft in the 1980s and 1990s. A series of teacher strikes in the 1970s followed by the 1980 consent decree calling for a voluntary plan desegregation in Chicago led to white flight out of the school system, and subsequently Taft experienced a series of struggles that for 20 years took the school off the radar for many local families.
In order to fill its classrooms, Taft relied on the lottery – an enrollment processes which students chose to enter and were selected based on their race.
For Taft, this meant that a large influx of African-American students from the Austin neighborhood would be going to a high school in a predominantly white neighborhood of Norwood Park and this created racial tension.
For example, on one school day in the late 1980s, paint had to be used on nearly every sidewalk square around the entire school to cover racial epithets, telling black students to go home.
Administrators reported that it was also difficult to sustain after-school activities because too many students faced long commutes and that they were being encouraged to leave the building after their last class.
However, according to many parents at the time, problems at Taft did not peak until the mid-1990s, when the school began accepting transfer students from the overcrowded Foreman High School, 3235 N, Leclaire Ave
Until those transfers, Taft had a small Hispanic enrollment, and soon after there were increasing reports of tensions between Hispanic and black gangs at the school.
At one local school council meeting, a principal entered the room with a bleeding forehead and announced the someone was going to get killed at the school. He then described how he was involved in breaking up two fights at the school.
At another meeting, an LSC president shouted, "There’s blood all over this school."
Police were sometimes called to the Jefferson Park CTA Terminal, 4917 N. Milwaukee Ave., and would order either the Hispanic or black students off a bus, forcing one of the groups to wait for another bus.
For the next couple years, the LSC debated whether Taft had become "a dumping ground" for unwanted students.
At one meeting it was reported that some students set off metal detectors because they were wearing electronic monitoring devices, as they were being allowed to leave a juvenile detention center to attend classes at Taft.
In addition, the use of the enrollment lottery became the center of debate.
Former principal Tom Brown sought a letter from the Chicago Public Schools’ Law Department stating that the school could skip the lottery and not be in violation of the consent decree, given that hundreds of Austin area students were seeking to enroll at Taft. The letter never arrived, and the temporary hold on Taft’s lottery was lifted.
Around this time a neighborhood group formed calling for changes to Taft. Members said that they wanted to send their children to a diverse neighborhood school but that Taft would not be an option until gang issues were addressed.
Top school system officials apparently were listening, as the International Baccalaureate Program and the Seventh and Eighth Grade Academic Center were launched at Taft in an effort to attract more local families. The center requires admissions testing.
The school system forced Brown out in the fall of 1998 and replaced him with Dr. Arthur Tarvardian, who was the assistant principal at Steinmetz High School. During his first few weeks at Taft, he asked each teacher to submit a list of 10 students who were not expected to graduate due to disciplinary issues and other problems and many of them ended up transferring to other schools.
Tarvardian also curtailed Taft’s use of the lottery, arguing that Taft could maintain its diversity due to the changing demographics of the Far Northwest Side since a growing number of Hispanic families were moving to the area.
By the late 1990s Taft’s white enrollment had dropped so much that the school was allowed to use the lottery to bring in white students from outside its attendance boundaries. One Taft counselor described it as "the lottery in reverse," and it was believed to be the first time the lottery was used to increase white enrollment in a predominantly white neighborhood.
Several years earlier Taft was prohibited from admitting outside white students because its white enrollment was considered too high under the consent decree, which ended in 2009. Prior to the ban, a significant number of Taft’s white students came from neighborhoods south of its attendance area.
As principal, Tarvardian pledged to create a school which emphasized more than just academics – with students finding ways to keep busy after the last bell.
Taft’s acceptance by the community increased steadily in the 2000s, but a common concern expressed by some skeptical residents often went along the lines of, "I hear good things, but I don’t quite believe it."
In recent years the latter part of that statement has disappeared in those calls, and surges in local enrollment gave Taft the title of "most overcrowded" high school in the city.
In 2014, Mark Grishaber was hired as Taft’s principal, bringing a new mindset for the school.
His job was to take Taft to the next level, according to the LSC members who hired him.
Grishaber is quick to point out anytime when Taft outperforms its suburban counterparts, explaining how Taft should not be compared to other city schools but those in the wealthier suburban school districts – in both academics and the quality of it facilities.
For the 2 two years Taft has made the "best high schools" list put out by U.S. News and World Report and last year hosted its first-ever "Friday Night Lights’ football game – a feat which long LSC member Jim Del Medico, who died in 2011, said would put an exclamation point on Taft’s status as a neighborhood school.
On the school’s website, Grishaber writes that one of the school’s strengths is its diversity, with more than 55 languages spoken among its students. In 2018, Taft’s minority population was at 53 percent.
Grishaber also explains the school’s "no one sits alone at lunch" motto.
Taft "mirrors society as a whole and accepts all students for who they are, including their weaknesses, their quirks and all of their strengths. (It’s) a school that understands that sometimes a student’s main concern is not just what happens in the classroom but who they are going to sit with at lunch."