New life for an old school in Englewood sets a standard for all Chicago

If successful, the repurposed school building will offer the neighborhood much-need transitional housing, vocational training and health care.

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The former Granville T. Woods Math & Science Academy Elementary School, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.

The former Granville T. Woods Math & Science Academy Elementary School, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Some applause is in order for a network of Englewood community organizations working now to transform a vacant and crumbling Chicago public school building into a community center designed to serve the needs of the area.

If successful, the effort gives people in Englewood a place to get much-needed free transitional housing, vocational training and health care.

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And it helps the neighborhood heal a bit from former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2014 decision to suddenly close 50 schools all at once — and failing to develop a reuse plan for the vacated structures.

On Wednesday, Chicago Public Schools approved transferring ownership of the former Granville T. Woods Math & Science Academy building, at 62nd Street and Racine Avenue, to the city.

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City officials are working out a redevelopment agreement with the nonprofit Inner-City Muslim Action Network — known as IMAN— which is leading a set of community organizations that is behind a plan to repurpose the three-story, 65,000-square-foot midcentury building.

“How do we sit by in these communities and allow 60,000-square-foot facilities to be vacant, vandalized and contribute to the decay and death in a neighborhood?” Rami Nashashibi, executive director of Inner-City Muslim Action Network, asked Sun-Times reporter Nader Issa.

According to school officials, 37 of the vacated buildings have either been sold or are pending sale, transferred to the city for reuse, or internally repurposed since 2013.

But it’s been a long haul. School buildings located in wealthier neighborhoods have been snapped up relatively quickly — no surprise given that repurposing a structure the size of a school is a multimillion-dollar expense — while many South and West side schools await new uses.

For instance, the old Lyman Trumbull Elementary School, at 5200 N. Ashland in the North Side’s Andersonville community, now houses the upscale and private Chicago Waldorf School. But the former Crispus Attucks school, at 3813 S. Dearborn on the South Side, sits vacant after seven years.

And the old Overton School, at 221 E. 49th, has received national attention for the pop-up artistic functions that have been held there.

There is a particularly bright spot on the Far South Side where the 125-year-old former West Pullman Elementary School, at 119th Street and Parnell Avenue, has been turned into 60 units of affordable housing for seniors and military veterans.

The former Woods school in Englewood sat abandoned and vandalized — a blight on the community. But the effort led by IMAN seeks to press the building back into service.

Rebranded as the “Regenerator,” the old school would be converted into dormitory-style housing with room for 100 men who are either formerly incarcerated or otherwise vulnerable to poverty and violence.

A fresh market, cafeteria, pharmacy and health clinic are among the uses planned for the building. Three other community groups are working with IMAN on the endeavor: the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, Teamwork Englewood and E.G. Woode, an Englewood organization that supports entrepreneurs of color.

“This isn’t only a matter of restoring a building. It’s also a process of reclaiming the dignity of these communities, and reclaiming the humanity of these communities after they’ve been through a tremendous experience of disinvestment, abandonment and violence,” Nashashibi said.

The groups want to begin renovation next spring and are aiming for at least a partial reopening by 2022.

“It’s one thing to fail our communities by the wholesale shutdown of these schools,” Nashashibi added. “It’s another thing to sit by and allow them to just deteriorate in front of the neighborhood. There should be a level of outrage, and there is in the community, because we all know this would not be tolerated in other neighborhoods.”

We like this effort. And we urge the city and CPS to support more creative efforts like this. The unplanned and unexpected shutdown of schools like Woods caused unnecessary harm to neighborhoods such as Englewood. Allowing them to remain abandoned and unused only aggravates the offense.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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