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De La Salle Shatters 125-Year-Old Tradition In Order To Grow, Officials Say

By Ed Komenda | September 2, 2015 5:42am
 At the start of the 2017-18 school year, De La Salle will merge its two campuses to become a coed campus.
De La Salle Coed Classroom
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BRIDGEPORT — Amaya Utreras felt shocked when she learned De La Salle Institute would become a coed school at the start of her junior year — but in a good way.

That meant the 14-year-old freshman basketball player would soon share classes with some of her closest male friends from John C. Dore Elementary School, a coed school in Clearing.

“It’s going to be weird seeing each other,” said Utreras, who grew up on the South Side, hearing a lot about De La Salle’s storied, 125-year-old tradition of single-sex education.

Though Utreras never expected to attend classes with boys during high school, she said the experience will be a familiar one: “I’m very used to it.”

 The campus will expand to a vacant lot that was once the Pickford Theater.
The campus will expand to a vacant lot that was once the Pickford Theater.
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Courtesy of De La Salle Institute

Her fellow students seem to share the "I'm excited" sentiment following the school’s decision to merge its separate campuses for boys and girls and become a coed high school at the start of the 2017-18 school year.

"We'll all be together as one," said Marion Simone Edwards, a 15-year-old sophomore at De La Salle's Lourdes campus for girls in Bridgeport.

The tradition-shattering journey began with a survey.

The school’s planning committee sent a questionnaire to 400 families interested in possibly sending their children to De La Salle. About 10 percent of the families responded, but the results were enough to get school officials chatting about abandoning the institute’s longtime tradition to build an environment that might draw more families and spark growth.  

“We think we know what people are looking for,” said Diane Brown, De La Salle’s interim principal, who sat on the school’s planning board when the surveys went out. “But until you ask people, are you really sure?”

The survey showed, above all else, families looked for outstanding academic programs when deciding on a high school. Near the top of the list, you’ll find athletics, technology, club activities and faith formation, or a steady exposure to religious teachings.

“Single-sex education was near the bottom of the list,” Brown said.

“We thought maybe we should reevaluate what we’re doing here,” said the Rev. Paul Novak, De La Salle’s president.

With the eye-opening survey information in hand, the planning board looked at how much the boys and girls from the two campuses already mingle.

De La Salle’s golf, cross country and track teams are all coed. The varsity girls teams play all their games at De La Salle boys' campus in Bronzeville. All of the school’s business offices are on the boys' campus.

In classrooms, during first period, you’ll find a coed environment classes like French 4 and Publication Design.

“We’re doing more things together as it is,” Brown said. “We realized [the tradition] doesn’t make sense anymore.”

In its 125 years on the South Side, more than 10,000 students have graduated from the school, including five mayors, Richard J. Daley and Richard M. Daley among them. Students come from all over the South Side, including the communities of Bridgeport, Bronzeville and Back of the Yards. Today, the school’s student population includes 35 international students.

The switch to coed comes more than a decade after De La Salle became one of two co-institutional schools in the country in 2002, when it opened the Lourdes Hall Campus at 1040 W. 32nd Place in Bridgeport for girls.

The women’s campus budded from the neighborhood’s demands for an all-girls high school, Brown said. A year earlier, St. Barbara High School, a historically all-girls school, had closed.

While De La Salle made headlines when it became a “co-institutional school,” Brown admits the term was confusing.

“Most of our public didn’t realize what that meant anyway,” Brown said. “Many of our alums already think we’re coed.”

Now, as De La Salle officially joins a growing list of private schools in Chicago that made the switch to coed — including Marist High School and Gordon Tech (now DePaul College Prep) — school officials are focused on making the transition a smooth one.

 De La Sale is planning to build a new school building as it combines its girls and boys campuses
De La Sale is planning to build a new school building as it combines its girls and boys campuses
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Courtesy of De La Salle Institute

That planning includes a new four-story building across the street from the 3434 S. Michigan Ave. campus for the combined boys and girls school. When the building is complete, the campus will include 1,200 students.

The buildings used for the girls’ school will not be left vacant, Brown said, but school officials are still debating how the women’s campus will be used once the expansion is finished.

Since the coed conversation began on campus and the announcement hit the streets, Brown said the reaction has been one-sided:

“I haven’t had anybody speak to me negatively about the change,” she said.  “The typical answer is: ‘That makes sense.’”

On De La Salle’s official Facebook page, comments on a post about the school’s decision to turn coed leaned positive.

“[Twenty]-something years too late for me,” wrote alumni Ron Taylor, “but it's great they are making that move.”

Daniel Gonzalez, the father of a De La Salle student, did not agree with the school’s decision: “Don’t get me wrong, I love the school,” he wrote. “I have a son attending, just would like to see it stay a boys-only campus.”

Students at the two campuses seem excited about the change.

“I’m excited,” said Jamari Norwood, a 15-year-old sophomore at De La Salle and graduate of St. Elizabeth Elementary School. “We’ll be able to see a different perspective.”

Caroline Wood, a 14-year-old freshman from St. Bartholomew School, said she was a little overwhelmed by the news. Her father, a longtime history teacher at De La Salle, helped quell her concern.

“He thinks it’ll be a good experience for us,” she said.

DNAinfo reporter Sam Cholke contributed to this report.

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