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Several CPS schools could be closed to make way for Englewood HS

First lady Michelle Obama visited Harper High School in the Englewood neighborhood on April 10, 2013. | Nancy Stone, Pool/Getty Images

Several South Side high schools are expected to be on the chopping block in the next few years to make way for a shiny new neighborhood high school in Englewood, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

The city’s public school system has set aside about $75 million in money it has borrowed for construction projects for what it’s calling a “Southside High School” at an undisclosed location.

But sources tell the Sun-Times that Englewood will be home to the new school — CPS’ first new neighborhood high school construction in many years — though a specific address hasn’t been finalized.

“We will continue to listen to the community’s feedback before moving forward or making specific recommendations about project details,” district spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in an email. “The feedback of Local School Councils, aldermen and other elected officials, members of the faith community, Community Action Councils and others will begin after the new year and will be critical before making any recommendation about a new high school on the South Side.”

She pointed to a coalition of community members, educators and district officials who have urged CPS to develop a strategy for its under-enrolled high schools, and said the new school would be paid for with some of the proceeds of a $729 million bond sale earmarked for construction projects.

CPS officials also aren’t publicly explaining why the district, with falling enrollment and budget woes, needs a new high school. But one source told the Sun-Times it’s likely that four to six schools could be closed and consolidated into the new school.

No schools have been targeted, but the existing CPS high schools in and around Englewood are among the city’s most under-enrolled. Not only have African-American residents departed the city, but students now have a wide variety of school choices in citywide CPS programs and dozens of charter high schools.

Five South Side high schools count about 150 or fewer total students in all four grades. TEAM Englewood, 6201 S. Stewart, for example, had just 15 freshman as of an October count. At Robeson, it was 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 funding to several high schools just so they could offer a full slate of courses. And less funding means fewer programs to lure new students in.

Most of the South Side high schools with the lowest enrollments also have special education populations more than twice 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.

High schools were spared in the 2013 round of school closings Mayor Rahm Emanuel presided over when a record 50 schools in mostly black neighborhoods were shuttered at once because of safety concerns. Previous high school closings were blamed for the 2009 savage beating death of a 16-year-old Fenger High School student captured on a cellphone video that played around the world.

But high school consolidations could be addressed after a five-year school closing moratorium expires in fall 2018.

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 just opened in September as Austin College and Career Academy.

Families in Chinatown also have asked CPS to put the new South Side school in their neighborhood, telling officials at a recent budget hearing that students have to travel too far to attend high school.

But Englewood is still the preferred destination.

Earlier this year, Emanuel blamed his dismal showing among black voters in a New York Times poll on “40 years of disinvestment” on Chicago’s South and West Sides. He’s been trying ever since to reverse that trend.

The impoverished Englewood community has been Ground Zero in his effort, with a new Whole Foods store and public investments built all around the new store that anchors Englewood Square — using an $11 million city subsidy for site preparation.

The store had a targeted opening of 2015 but finally opened in September of this year after site preparation and environmental remediation — including removal of underground oil-storage tanks and lead hot spots — took longer than expected.

Word that the new “South Side high school” included in the CPS capital plan would be built in Englewood — probably not far from the new Whole Foods at 63rd and Halsted across the street from Kennedy-King College — did not surprise local aldermen.

Nor were they taken aback by the idea that the new high school would be the shiny prize used to sell the neighborhood on a high school consolidation plan.

“A new high school would send a message that we’re continuing to invest in our neighborhoods, just as we did in the Back of the Yards, when they introduced the new IB-Back of the Yards high school,” said Ald. Ray Lopez (15th).

“Obviously, we don’t want to talk about closing schools. But we have to be prepared for the population trends as they have been,” he said. “And in my part of Greater Englewood, we are seeing new families come into the community, new homeowners buying into the area, as well as working with our longstanding homeowners. They want to make sure that our communities are vibrant and family friendly. Having a new high school in the area would definitely send that message.”

Lopez was asked whether he would be willing to accept the closing of a handful of half-empty high schools if that’s the price that must be paid to get a brand new high school.

“My ward has two high schools in Englewood. We have Lindblom and we have Harper. I don’t want to see Harper closed, even though populations are trending downward. We have to look at ways to make that school viable as well. If that means doing co-locations where we can turn it into a K-through-12 facility, I’d be open for that. But it’s too soon to say we have to close it,” Lopez said.

“I can’t speak for all of Englewood. But at least in my area Lindblom is very much filled,” he said. “They’re actually looking at expanding Lindblom. And I think we need to look at all of the options for Harper as well.”

Ald. Toni Foulkes (16th) used to represent the 15th Ward until she was remapped out of it. Her new ward includes Whole Foods, but no public high schools.

Foulkes said she is “not surprised they’re talking about closing Harper, where they started the school year with “200-plus” students only to have enrollment drop to “100 and something.”

But she argued that enrollment doesn’t tell the whole story.

“When I was the alderman in the 15th, the concern of staffing at Harper was that children were being recruited by charter schools. They’d go to their houses and say, `You don’t want your child going to the community school because they fight. They have bad kids there,’ ” Foulkes said.

“But they only target [top] students. So that leaves them with the students that are troubled, have issues and low test scores,” she said. “And when those charters take them, the first time they have a problem, they kick ’em out and send ’em back.”

On Tuesday, Foulkes raised public safety concerns about any plan to consolidate South Side high schools.

“You want something new, but I have to see the dynamics of it. It’s gonna be an issue of course, kids crossing over gang lines. Parents don’t have money for bus fare and things like that. That’s something to take into consideration,” she said.

Foulkes hesitated when asked whether she would go along with a consolidation or phaseout of South Side high schools.

“Right now, I’m for community schools. In my 46 years in Englewood and West Englewood, kids went to their neighborhood school. I went to Ralph Bunch on 65th and Ashland. Kids went to Harper High School. It was within walking distance of their home,” the alderman said.

“When you have a community of low-income people, they’re gonna have to use buses to get there. It changes dynamics. I would have to stew on that. Right now, today, this particular second I am for community schools.”

Englewood’s other alderman, the recently indicted Willie Cochran (20th), could not be reached for comment.

Emanuel’s plans to build a new selective enrollment school he wanted to name for President Barack Obama were recently canceled as part of the deal to give CPS the $87.5 million in tax-increment financing money needed in October to stave off another teachers strike.

It was not known Tuesday whether construction of the new South Side high school in Englewood might also pave the way for the mayor to resurrect that project or make it politically palatable for him to build a new high school on the Near North Side, as he originally planned.