Chicago’s rebounding Englewood community will get a new $75 million high school but pay the price by closing of four under-enrolled schools, according to a long-awaited plan unveiled Friday.
Three days after appeasing Chinatown residents with plans to convert the South Loop’s thriving National Teaching Academy elementary school into a high school, Chicago Public Schools officials confirmed that new construction will go to Englewood.
That high school will be built on Robeson’s campus, 6835 S. Normal, and bankrolled by bonds sold against a $43 million property-tax levy approved by the City Council solely for school construction and renovation.
But getting the shiny new school, expected to open for 9th graders by September 2019, requires closing four South Side high schools whose enrollments have dwindled after CPS created many other options: Harper, Hope, Robeson and TEAM Englewood.
They won’t be shuttered until construction is completed — well after a five-year moratorium on school closings expires and just after the 2019 mayoral election.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who alienated black voters by closing 50 grade schools in 2013, didn’t want to talk Friday about closing high schools (which were spared then because of safety concerns). Rather, he heralded the new building as part of his grand plan to boost private sector investment in Englewood.
Schools chief Forrest Claypool and Janice Jackson, CPS’ chief education officer, said the idea to sacrifice four schools for a new one came from Englewood itself.
“This was a unique situation brought to us by the community where we were able to build a brand-new school while consolidating schools that are dilapidated and significantly under-enrolled,” Claypool said.
Jackson said Englewood, home of many privately-managed charter schools, “has not had this level of investment” in its schools for decades and no new high school since the 1970s.
Yet the unveiling of not one but two new high schools in Chicago, ever broke and hemorrhaging students, raises questions about how the district could possibly need or afford them.
Less than two years ago, Claypool and Jackson opposed a group who wanted Dyett High School reopened in Washington Park, wielding demographic data to show how the South Side lacked enough children.
Emanuel changed his mind about Dyett after a month-long hunger strike of mostly African-American parents and grandparents shamed him nationally. But that’s the kind of decision that happens when there’s no plan, said Beatriz de la Ponce, who heads Generation All, which advocates for neighborhood high schools.
And it appears to have happened again as the families at NTA learned suddenly that CPS wants to turn it into a high school to serve the booming South Loop.
“We can’t make decisions based on individual community groups or aldermen who can advocate for their neighborhoods,” de la Ponce said. “We do have way too many seats, we don’t have quality seats distributed throughout the city, but until we look at that holistically, these kinds of decisions are made behind closed doors and then rolled out.”
Bridgeport and Armour Square have no high schools, and Englewood’s are dangerously under-enrolled. In contrast, the North and Northwest Sides have more access to secondary schools with CPS’ top ratings. District officials said children living on the Near South Side attend 147 different high schools, and Englewood students attend 150.
“But we can’t ignore the ways to take an existing school and wrap it up and transform it into an even more powerful school,” de la Ponce said.
At a boisterous three-hour CPS meeting this week, students from Bridgeport and Chinatown testified of the pressure to get into selective enrollment schools instead of their lower-performed assigned schools — Tilden and Phillips.
Jacqueline Yeo said she was just an average student. In tears, she testified about traveling out to Curie High School on the Southwest Side.
“We’re a minority group. We get ignored,” said David Wu of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community. But, he added, “we struggle with gaining something at the expense of someone else.”
Chicago’s Chinese community has lobbied for a high school for decades, so Wu said the question becomes, “How do we make it equitable, how do we reduce harm?”
The new property tax windfall could fund construction, Wu said.
But that just pays start-up costs. Schools also need money to keep going once they’re full of students — and existing schools lose money as students leave.
Since CPS allocates money to schools every year based on the number of students enrolled, and principals use that money to hire teachers, a 10-student loss can gouge a school’s budget.
At least one charter operator also wants to open a new secondary school in the fall of 2018.
Plus, other capital needs abound. Ray Salazar, a teacher at Hancock High School on the Southwest Side, wrote Friday on his blog that “leaders have continued to ignore the sub-standard building conditions” — bubbling floor tiles and “urinals and toilets covered with plastic garbage bags and duct tape because of plumbing issues.”
Meanwhile, Harper High School has allies in Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) and Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) who’ll lobby to keep it open, citing concerns about crossing gang boundaries as well as Harper’s increasing enrollment.
The Chicago Teachers Union also will fight the closings. It accused Emanuel of “doubling down on a disastrous and irresponsible gentrification scheme” that has triggered an exodus of black residents.
“… school closings are another way for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to sabotage the community at its time of greatest need,” the union wrote in an emailed statement.
NTA also has organized already around its survival. The Level 1 school has improved quickly and steadily, said Hannah El-Amin, who happily schleps her two children from Hyde Park to 4th grade and kindergarten there.
“The vast majority of students in Chicago do have to travel for a high school education, to get access to a high ranking high school. It’s actually the norm. I think if you only have to travel three miles to get an excellent education you’re in pretty good shape in Chicago,” she said.
“I understand it would be a nice benefit” to have a closer high school, she continued. “I see that as a minor inconvenience not worth the sacrifice of NTA.”