Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson on Wednesday laid the groundwork for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s controversial plan to close a handful of South Side high schools to make way for a new $75 million high school in Englewood.
“We have about 15 high schools that are under-enrolled with less than 200 students and seven of them are located in the Englewood area or surrounding area,” Jackson said after joining the mayor at Malcolm X College to announce a new high school graduation requirement.
“So we’re talking to the community and we’re really taking their direction on this. We have not had a chance to sit down and meet with them since they attended our last board meetings. But we’re looking forward to doing that in the coming weeks,” she said.
Jackson was asked whether all seven of those under-enrolled high schools would be closed to remove what has become a drain on a broke public school system.
“We’ve got to talk to the community. Right now, as the mayor said, there’s a moratorium on school closings. But we look forward to speaking with the community and seeing what they want for their community,” she said.
Pressed on whether area residents would be willing to swallow high school closings in exchange for a shiny new high school, Jackson said: “Only time will tell.”
Emanuel was even less forthcoming when asked about how many high schools would have to be sacrificed to make way for a brand new one in Englewood.
“First of all, we went through a consolidation [by closing 50 schools]. As you know, we put in place a moratorium,” the mayor said.
“If you’re trying to talk specifically about the discussions we’re having, we’re involved in the community process right now in Englewood and I’m not gonna prejudge that discussion,” he said.
In a statement Wednesday night, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said: “The Mayor and his handpicked cast of school killers are proposing new obstacles to high school graduation with zero resources. And once again, he’s proposing a new round of school closings in one of the most violent spaces in this city. He continues to prove that he has zero capacity for sound and compassionate leadership. He’s gone from bad to worse.”
The Chicago Sun-Times reported in late December that several South Side high schools would be on the chopping block to make way for a new neighborhood high school in Englewood.
CPS has set aside about $75 million it has borrowed for construction projects for what it’s calling a “Southside High School” at an undisclosed location.
But sources told the Sun-Times that Englewood would be home to the new school. The building — the first new CPS neighborhood high school construction in many years — would probably be built not far from the new Whole Foods at 63rd and Halsted, across the street from Kennedy-King College.
In late February, Emanuel publicly acknowledged that he plans to build a high school in Englewood as part of his “holistic” strategy to fight crime by rebuilding long-neglected neighborhoods.
The following day, the chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus urged CPS to come clean about how many South Side high schools it intends to close to make way for the new high school.
“I want to know where it’s gonna be. I want to know if it’s gonna displace other schools. Are they moving one school into another? I want to know what type of school it will be and what the financial commitment is. I want as much information as I can get. I want to know everything,” Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said then.
“I’m not advocating for school closings. But I acknowledge there are tremendously underutilized schools in the Englewood area,” he said. “If it means strengthening the overall school system in Englewood, I would consider going along with school closings. But we need to know the specifics.”
Citing safety concerns, Emanuel spared high schools from the 2013 round of school closings that targeted a record 50 schools in predominantly black neighborhoods on the South and West sides.
The mayor was determined to avoid a repeat of the savage beating death of 16-year-old Fenger High School student Derrion Albert, an attack captured on a cellphone video that went viral, after an earlier round of high school closings.
High school consolidations could be addressed after a five-year school closing moratorium expires in the fall of 2018.
Five South Side high schools count about 150 or fewer students in all four grades. TEAM Englewood, 6201 S. Stewart, for example, had just 15 freshman as of an October count. At Robeson, it had 23 freshman in a school of only 152 children. Just five years ago, Robeson, 6835 S. Normal, had 192 students in its freshmen class and a total of 734.
Since CPS assigns money for hiring teachers based on the number of students they enroll, those population plunges have led the district to ship extra money to several high schools just so they could offer a full slate of courses. And less funding means fewer programs to lure new students.
Most of the South Side high schools with the lowest enrollments also have special education populations more than twice the CPS average of about 13 percent. For example, just over 36 percent of students at Robeson and at Hope High School, 5515 S. Lowe, are special education.
West Side residents saw that writing on the wall and initiated their own consolidation of three small high schools sharing the old Austin High School building into a single school that opened in September as Austin College and Career Academy.
Families in Chinatown also have asked CPS to put the South Side school in their neighborhood, telling officials at a recent budget hearing that students have to travel too far to attend high school.