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Wendell Phillips Football Team Hopes To Help Revive School's Greatness

By Justin Breen | November 18, 2014 5:35am
 The Wendell Phillips football team is in the IHSA state semifinals for the first time.
The Wendell Phillips football team is in the IHSA state semifinals for the first time.
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CHICAGO — The Wendell Phillips Academy football team is scripting another notable chapter in the history of the 110-year-old school.

The Wildcats advanced to the IHSA Class 4A state semifinals for the first time after beating Rockford Lutheran 14-13 on Saturday. Phillips (11-1) faces Coal City (10-2) at 3:45 p.m. Saturday at Gately Stadium, with the winner qualifying for the Nov. 28 state championship game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Coal City will be playing in the state semis for the sixth time.

Bronzeville-based Phillips, 244 E. Pershing Road, was founded in 1904 and became the city's first predominantly African-American high school. Famous alumni include entertainer Dinah Washington, historian Timuel Black, baseball star Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

"This place is Chicago history, with so many notable graduates over its 110-year-history, and it's important to the African-American community," Phillips athletic director John Byrne said Monday.

Justin Breen says the school could make Chicago Public League history:

But at the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, Phillips was declared a "failing" school, with 27 percent of the freshman class found to read at a third-grade level or lower.

According to a 2011 Christian Science Monitor report, "the Academy of Urban School Leadership got approval for federal funds to make Phillips a turnaround project," and the school received about $5 million in grants over the next five years from the Education Department.

As part of the turnaround process, every school employee — from the "principal to the janitor," according to WGN News — was replaced.

The school is still well below the curve academically — only 10 percent of students met or exceeded Prairie State Achievement Exam reading standards; 56 percent was the state average in the last school year. In math, just 5 percent met or achieved Prairie State exam standards; the state average was 52 percent.

But Byrne said he believes success stories like the football team's can help the school improve overall.

"Certainly, this gives us the platform to do that and to tell our story," said Byrne, of Rogers Park. "This journey we are on is part of the rejuvenation of the history of this place."

After Phillips' game Saturday, Simeon faces Homewood-Flossmoor at Gately Stadium in a Class 8A semifinal. It's the first time two Chicago Public League football teams have been in the Final Four in the same year. No public league football squad has won a state championship.

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