Richards Career Academy First day 21-22

Back to School at Richards HS

I took a bike ride around my neighborhood this morning to witness a bit of the back-to-school action. First stop: Richards Career Academy. Richards was expecting about 252 students this morning–it’s a small high school with a strong culinary arts program and a tough history to overcome. Principal Ellen Kennedy has been working on it for a few years now and the word seems to be getting out, at least a little bit, that things are changing.

Alrenzo, a first-year student at Richards

Alrenzo comes to Richards from CICS Basil. He told me he’s both nervous and excited about going back to school. “I did my whole eighth-grade year online.” But wearing a mask doesn’t thrill him. “It’s irritating.”

Like many Richards students, the school wasn’t his first choice, but it was his choice. “I wasn’t supposed to go here. I was going to go to another high school, but I chose this one,” he said. His older brothers are all alums–one just graduated–but they didn’t give him pointers. “They ain’t told me nothing–none of them!” He’s also about to meet a whole lot of new people; none of his elementary school classmates are here. He plays basketball and might want to join the school team.

As a neighbor, a mom and a long-time CPS observer, I listen to Alrenzo and think “this is the kind of kid we really need to keep not just in school, but excited about it.” That won’t be easy. Alrenzo didn’t like school much pre-pandemic. Of pandemic schooling, he said, “It got worse. They gave us more work online than in regular school.” I heard the same thing from my neighbor, Delma, whose granddaughter goes to Basil and is younger than Alrenzo. On a pandemic front porch visit, she told me, “They have her going all day! She’s got a stack of books and a computer and she is busy, busy, busy.” Unlike Alrenzo, Delma’s granddaughter enjoys school. Will Richards capture his interest?

First-year Juana is all about “that Warrior life.”

Like Alrenzo, Juana is also brand-new to Richards. But she’s much more excited about school in general, and Richards in particular. Freshman Connection was good, she told me, with real enthusiasm. She’s gotten vaccinated and isn’t too worried about Covid. Juana graduated from nearby Chavez Elementary and actively chose Richards. “One of my Girl Scout leaders recommended Richards, now that it has changed,” she said, referring to the school’s previous negative reputation in the neighborhood (which is still an issue for many). Juana is interested in the culinary program–which has a long history and a rep as one of the best in the city. She’s starting the year off in one of the school’s custom face masks–excited to show she’s all about “that Warrior life.”

Shontah (right) and a classmate wait to enter Richards.

Shontah is a senior at Richards. She’s not vaccinated yet. “I’m not worried, but I’m, like, edged,” about going back into the building without her shots, she said. I asked her if she had heard about Protect Chicago at Home. When she said no, we looked it up on our cell phones together so she could see how to sign up for an appointment.

I was interested to hear Shontah say that she took part in the Freshman/Sophomore Connection program over the summer. They did projects and took Friday field trips to museums. Shontah thought it was OK but it was not as exciting as she had hoped for. She’s planning to go to Chicago State for nursing after she graduates.

Chicago Unheard will be checking in at Richards regularly over the course of the coming school year to see how return to school is going, with a special eye on whether students are coming back and getting re-engaged in school or turning away.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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