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‘Horrendously vandalized’ CPS school — shuttered in 2013 — transforming into housing, health center

“This isn’t only a matter of restoring a building, but it’s also a process of reclaiming the dignity of these communities,” one community leader involved in redeveloping the former Woods academy said.

Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network
Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, stands by the shuttered Granville T. Woods Math & Science Academy Elementary School, which his group plans to transform into a community center, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Community groups in Englewood are working to transform an abandoned elementary school that was one of 50 shuttered by city officials in 2013 into a community center with free transitional housing, life coaching, trades training and a health clinic.

The project is part of a larger effort to revitalize a neglected corridor in the South Side neighborhood that has fallen to decades of disinvestment including a closed CTA station and more recently the school.

The center, dubbed the “Regenerator,” would have dormitory-style housing with space for 100 men who are formerly incarcerated or are vulnerable to poverty and violence; classrooms for trades training; a fresh market; a cafeteria; a pharmacy and a satellite health clinic, organizers said. The latter two would be open to the broader community.

The group leading the effort to transform the three-story, 65,000 square foot former Woods Math & Science Academy at 62nd Street and Racine Avenue is the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, a nonprofit that works to address structural racism on the South Side. IMAN is working on the project with two community groups — the Resident Association of Greater Englewood and Teamwork Englewood — and a fourth organization, E.G. Woode, that supports entrepreneurs of color.

“This isn’t only a matter of restoring a building, but 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,” said Rami Nashashibi, IMAN’s executive director.

Almost every student at Woods Elementary was Black and came from a low-income family before it was shuttered as part of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s infamous and historic massive Chicago Public Schools closures seven years ago. Woods’ enrollment, like many schools on the South Side, had plummeted over the years from over 800 students to less than 400, CPS records show, as Black families left neighborhoods where schools and other public goods were underfunded and economic opportunities disappeared.

The Board of Education is set to approve Wednesday the transfer of the building ownership to the city, which is finalizing talks for a redevelopment agreement with IMAN. The group hopes to start renovating the rundown facility by the spring and have it at least partially open by mid-2022, and is hiring graduates of its trades program along with Black-led contractors for the renovation work.

A $90,000 sale of the building fell through in 2017 because of new damage and vandalism before the deal closed.

The center is a piece of the “Go Green on Racine” initiative to rejuvenate the area with other projects that include a fresh market that recently opened across the street from the abandoned school, and a multi-unit mixed housing development that’s in the works close by. The goal is to convince officials to reopen a shuttered CTA Green Line station in the area.

Nashashibi said the former school building is “absolutely, utterly, horrendously vandalized and vacant” and requires a complete rehab, “which says something.”

“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?” Nashashibi asked. “It’s one thing to fail our communities by the wholesale shutdown of these schools. 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.”

Nashashibi estimated the cost of the project around $12 million. The first couple million have been secured through foundation grants with promising leads from other sources, Nashashibi said. He’s hoping the city will chip in for a share of the cost but is sure regardless of city investment that the resources will be there to make the center sustainable.

Michael Nash (right) stands with Rami Nashashibi (middle) and Ben Gordon, IMAN’s director of construction, outside closed Granville T. Woods Math & Science Academy Elementary School, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.
Michael Nash (right) stands with Rami Nashashibi (middle) and Ben Gordon, IMAN’s director of construction, outside closed Granville T. Woods Math & Science Academy Elementary School, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Michael Nash, who grew up in Englewood, at the age of 18 got involved with IMAN’s “Green ReEntry” program, which provides vulnerable youth and formerly incarcerated men with life skills coaching, trades training and transitional housing.

Nash, now 21 and with a welding certificate in hand, is set to work on the renovation of the former school and help build it into the center he and others envision.

“It’s a big school that’s been abandoned for years,” Nash said. “And the whole area, there’s abandoned buildings around it. It looks bad to the whole community.

“I’m going to be part of everything from start to finish,” he said. “I get to be part of history, bringing up my community. I’m from Englewood. Anything that goes on in Englewood that brings it up and makes it better, I’m for it and I want to be a part of that.

“When you come from Englewood and you see poverty, it changes you in many ways. But when you have the opportunity to be part of this, it does something to you mentally, physically and emotionally.”