CPS board votes to close Englewood high schools, elementary school in South Loop

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Bobbie Brown, chair of Harper High School’s Local School Council, spoke out against a planned board vote in February to close Englewood’s four neighborhood high schools. File photo by Max Herman / Sun-Times

Despite emotional opposition, Chicago’s Board of Education voted Wednesday on the first school closings since 2013, a historic measure that also affected primarily African-American schools.

All six current school board members voted to permanently close Harper, Hope, Robeson and Team Englewood high schools, the last four neighborhood schools in that South Side community. Former principal Gail Ward abstained from voting to close National Teachers Academy elementary school, which will gradually be turned into a high school for the booming South Loop.

The closings, based on what CPS called “community support,” are likely a sign of what’s to come in the near future for the district’s many other schools hollowed out by shrinking enrollment overall combined with the addition of new schools. A five-year moratorium imposed to allow the 2013 closings ends in June.

Since CPS allocates money to schools per student, the Englewood high schools’ enrollments have plunged too far to offer a full courseload. After Robeson closes in June, a state-of-the-art high school will be built on its campus, 6835 S Normal Blvd. The new $85 million school will open in the fall of 2019 to 9th graders.

NTA, home to mostly African-American students at 55 W. Cermak, will eventually be merged with the wealthier and more diverse South Loop Elementary School, which is getting a new annex. NTA’s building will become a neighborhood high school for the Near South Side, including for the residents of Chinatown who long have lobbied for a nearby neighborhood school.

In a recent concession, NTA and the other high schools will remain open long enough to allow their current students finish, and Harper may eventually reopen as another kind of school.

CEO Janice Jackson, who inherited the proposals from her predecessor but embraced them fully, assured opponents of the closings that she heard their feedback and testimony. But she made it clear that she stood by her decisions as what’s best for children.

“Some of us have seen eye-to-eye on these plans, and some of us have not,” she said. “But we have listened to all of you. And as a result of your feedback – feedback we received through a comprehensive engagement process that included everything from large public hearings to small parent gatherings on the weekend – our plans are now stronger.”

Neither she nor the school board members appeared to be swayed by concerns, reported in the Chicago Sun-Times, that some of the community support CPS used to justify the closings, came from a vendor who lives outside of Englewood, and from an organization based in the south suburbs.

“You don’t have to live in a community,” to make suggestions, Jackson said.

“I’m very comfortable with this because I think it serves the needs of the parents and students,” said Mahalia Hines, who voted on school closures in 2013.

As in 2013, district plans to shutter the schools were met with fierce and organized opposition as the Chicago Teachers Union and parents tearfully begged CPS to spare their elementary schools. This time, students also seized the microphone.

Upstairs, students urged officials to halt the votes, then more kids launched a sit-in that turned into a march to City Hall.

In the board’s basement chambers, more students and parents crowded around the glass barrier separating CPS staffers from the public.

“I thought you close schools because they’re low performing, but at NTA it’s the exact opposite. We’re level 1+,” — the district’s top rating, 8th grader Taylor Wallace said. “So please tell me what is the need to close our school.”

Hope sophomore Miracle Boyd said her school needs more investment and programs to replace the ones that have disappeared as enrollment dropped to under 500 across the four named to close.

“You don’t give us the things that we need,” she told them. The phaseout is better than immediate closure, Boyd continued, but it’s still not what students want.

“Whether you kill us slow or kill us fast, you still kill us,” she said.

Also approved on Wednesday with little fanfare was the merger of the Jenner Elementary, serving mostly African-American students, with the overcrowded and wealthier Ogden International School, the result of a few years of discussion among families and community leaders. Cardenas and Castellanos will merge their K-3 and 4-8 populations under one principal both schools already share. Henry Elementary and Haugan Elementary will add 7th and 8th grades, ending a middle school program at Roosevelt High School.

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