Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday publicly acknowledged he plans to build a high school in Englewood as part of his “holistic” strategy to fight crime by rebuilding long-neglected neighborhoods.
The mayor let the cat out of the bag during an appearance at the vacant site of the old Kennedy-King College.
The purpose of the news conference was to highlight a previously announced plan to sell 18 acres of city-owned land at North and Throop to private developers and rebuild the outdated vehicle maintenance facility on the Englewood site.
The project will bring 200 jobs to the impoverished Englewood community. In conjunction with the move by the city’s Department of Fleet and Facilities Management, the city is marketing a 4.9-acre property across the street for retail development.
Emanuel mentioned his plan for the Englewood high school in making the argument that economic development and jobs are the long-term solution to reducing Chicago’s skyrocketing murder rate.
“We also know investing in our education, our after-school and summer jobs here — which is why we’re talking about a new high school in this area — is important to our safety and vibrancy of the community,” the mayor said.
“Which is why we also worked so hard to get Whole Foods, Chipotle and Starbucks to open up in what was then called a food desert. All of those are a piece of a whole of a strategy. Which is why I take a look at Lindblom high school here in Englewood. That’s part of not only making sure our kids have a good education, they have a safe place to go to do their studies and why Lindblom is making great progress educationally.”
The mayor did not mention the downside of the equation: the new $75 million Englewood high school will be built not far from the Whole Foods at 63rd and Halsted across the street from Kennedy-King College only after several under-enrolled South Side high schools are closed.
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 enrolled, 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.
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 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 the 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.
CPS has played coy on its plans, saying it’ll consult community groupsbefore committing to any specificlocation.
“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 December. “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.”
Last 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 Englewood community has been ground zero in his effort, with a Whole Foods store and public investments built all around the store that anchors Englewood Square using an $11 million city subsidies for site preparation.
The store had a targeted opening of 2015 but opened in September 2016 after site preparation and environmental remediation — including removal of underground oil-storage tanks and lead hot spots — took longer than expected.
South Side aldermen have said they are not surprised that the mayor plans to use a new building as a prize to sell the neighborhood on a high school consolidation plan.
But Ald. Toni Foulkes (16th) has 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, of kids crossing over gang lines. Parents don’t have money for bus fare and things like that. That’s something to take into consideration,” Foulkes has said.