Monday, May 21, 2012

Anatomy of a big high school

Chicago's great architectural critic Lee Bey writes for WBEZ public radio, about his alma mater, Chicago Vocational High School ("School of architecture: A look at sprawling Chicago Vocational.") 

The massive, 72-year-old school, located at 2100 E. 87th St., is not only the city's second largest high school building (only Lane Tech is bigger), but is Chicago's best large-scale example of Art Moderne architecture. The 27-acre school, formerly known as Chicago Vocational High School, was built for $3.5 million, with 45 percent of the cash coming from the federal Public Works Administration.

CVS was the first high school that joined the Small Schools Workshop back in the early 1990s. With nearly 4,000 students at that time, teachers and administrators were looking for ways to break through big-school anonymity, create a safer learning environment, and break down the wall between academic and vocational learning embeded in the old voc-ed model. After some initial successes, the project was lost to the district's shift to a test-prep regimen under Paul Vallas' regime.

Chicago Vocational closes and  re-opens in the fall as one of the city's five STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) academies. This is the latest in a long line of top-down, turn-around magic bullets. The hope, says Bey,  is that these six-year schools, with a curriculum and program developed by IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, Motorola Solutions and Verizon, will return the school to its original mission of producing graduates for the workforce. The design may have changed but the notion of public school as simply job training is anathema to sound ed policy.  But I do like the 6-12 concept, the small academy idea which lets kids choose based on their interests. I just think schools are for educating the whole child, not just the voc side.

Writes Bey, 
Chicago Vocational's original concept was revolutionary. The school system figured out the world of the 1940s and beyond would need more machinists, auto mechanics, electricians, architectural draftsmen, food service experts, sheet metal workers, complex printing machine operators–and more–so they built a school to fill the need. The school was built for 6,000 students, all male, originally, who would graduate with certificates proving they were work-ready.


  1. You have CVS labeled a small school. It was anything but that if you went to Bowen the other high school in the are. That's where I went. But I married someone, a wonderful someone from CVS.

    He was the man of my dreams, and I suspect the love of many other "girls" dreams. Love at first sight, but not at first word. Didn't speak for months. A story in itself and a little too long for this blog.

    Neil Baker, a handsome strapping 6'3, was President of the class of June 1957 and a winner of many National Architectural awards while at CVS. He always said he owed his career in architecture with the firm of Perkins & WIll, and in construction management (one of the first in his field) at Gilbane Building & Development.

    Neil was also an athlete, co-captain of the 1957 football team, and was awarded a college football scholarship but a badly injured knee cut his college career short.

    Lucky for me. We met not long after that but as I stated a story, a love story too long for this blog, and probably only of interest to me.

    Neil Baker, loved by his family, liked and respected by all who knew him died, far too early at the the age of 68 in 2006. Did any of you know him? If you did let me know. Any stories I might pass on to his two sons?

    Neil did not brag, did not boast so his sons, two of them, would like to know more about their Dads' high school years and accomplishments. Even I didn't know about all of them So if there is any among you who knew him from those years, who read this blog we'd sure like to know.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Judith. Just one correction. I never said CVS was a small school. But we did organize several smaller learning communities within massive CVS.


Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.