I’m opposed to the Near South High School plan — here’s why

The way in which the mayor and CPS are pushing forward with this current, controversial and problematic proposal is troubling. There has not been meaningful community engagement with open, public meetings and true dialogue

SHARE I’m opposed to the Near South High School plan — here’s why
A vacant lot at West 24th Street and South State Street in the South Loop is the proposed site of a new high school.

A vacant lot at West 24th Street and South State Street in the South Loop is the proposed site of a new high school.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

As a story in Tuesday’s Chicago Sun-Times noted, I secured $50 million in state funding for Chicago Public Schools’ proposed new Near South High School. And I have long been committed to assisting community members in their decades-long effort to get a school built.

But that does not mean that I am in agreement with the current proposal to build on Chicago Housing Authority land, on the site of the former Harold Ickes Homes. In fact, I am deeply opposed.

From the moment I became aware that the site was being considered, I cautioned leaders at CPS and the Mayor’s Office that the plan was divisive, and that there were a number of reasons why discussions should not move forward with that location.

Primary among my concerns was the proximity to existing schools, whose decline in enrollment would be accelerated — a concern also cited in a confidential internal memo by CPS officials but ignored by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS leadership as they press forward with this plan. 

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I also expressed my objection to the dynamic that would be set up, in which it would appear as though the Chinatown community were in favor of taking land previously promised as a site for affordable housing for former CHA residents. This could not be further from the truth. If the mayor and CPS truly listened to community members, they would understand that it is possible for advocates to be for a new high school but not support their proposed site. 

Community members have long sought a high school to serve the Chinatown, Bridgeport and South Loop communities. This area has seen tremendous population growth, a significant portion due to new immigration from China. The need for a new school is not simply about having one in close proximity, although that is an important consideration given the long distances that students must commute to high school.

A troubling push, without real dialogue

The more urgent need, however, is to have a school that provides the bilingual staffing and language supports for English learners, who make up a significant portion of this area’s population. A new school that truly serves this community has to have robust bilingual or dual language programming and cultural competency, to communicate with immigrant families to help them thrive. 

The way in which the mayor and CPS are pushing forward with this current, controversial and problematic proposal is troubling. There has not been meaningful community engagement with open, public meetings and true dialogue — instead, only manufactured consent at meetings staged by CPS with hand-picked stakeholders. Requests for good-faith research into several alternative sites, including a location in The 78 and another parcel already owned by the City of Chicago, have gone ignored. 

What has become clear is that this project has been seized upon by the mayor as a desperate attempt at an election-year win, a feather in her cap at the expense of community members who did not ask to be pawns in her game. She is touting a new high school in a location that would harm existing schools and potentially accelerate their closure. She is promising returning CHA residents that they will have a new school when she could be investing in existing nearby schools. She is using funds earmarked to serve the Chinese immigrant community to justify her efforts, when the current proposal only pits minority communities against one another. She and her allies are suggesting that any opposition to this proposed site amounts to fostering racism and segregation, when in fact that description more aptly fits her actions. 

I refuse to be a pawn in the mayor’s game and I refuse to allow my constituents to be used in that fashion. Consequently I am withholding the $50 million in state dollars from this project until I can be assured of authentic community engagement and good faith consideration of other sites.

I hope that CPS will withdraw their current proposal until a more acceptable plan can be developed.

State Rep. Theresa Mah represents Illinois’ 2nd District.

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