Advocates pitch new plan for Near South CPS high school without breaking housing promises

The proposal pulls together a few separate ideas that have been floated in recent months in an attempt to alter Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan for a new $120 million school on former public housing land.

SHARE Advocates pitch new plan for Near South CPS high school without breaking housing promises
Roderick Wilson and other public housing advocates pitch a new plan for a CPS high school that wouldn’t be built on the site of promised housing.

Roderick Wilson and other public housing advocates pitch a new plan for a CPS high school that wouldn’t be built on the site of promised housing.

Nader Issa/Sun-Times

A group of housing advocates have teamed up with Chinatown residents to propose an alternative site for a new Near South Side public high school that would leave a plot of land open for the city to deliver promised public housing.

The proposal pulls together a few separate ideas that have been floated in recent months in an attempt to alter Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan for a new $120 million school on former public housing land — a pitch that surprised and continues to anger some residents.

“We need this administration to hear us,” said Roderick Wilson, executive director of the community organization Lugenia Burns Hope Center, at a news conference outside City Hall on Thursday. “Not to have meetings with little boxes to check off that we did our community outreach.”

The group’s idea, laid out in a hand-delivered letter to Lightfoot’s office, is to build the new high school on the development site known as “The 78” for its potential to become the city’s 78th official community area on the Near South Side.

That would leave the mayor’s proposed location at 24th and State streets — part of the former Harold L. Ickes Homes that closed nearly a decade ago — open for public housing as promised to the former residents who were displaced.

“Not a brick of a school should be built there before 244 units of public housing are built there,” said Etta Davis, vice president of the advisory committee for the Dearborn Homes, a nearby public housing development.

CPS and CHA say the city plans to restore the housing, but in denser units and on a smaller share of the land.

Chinatown residents and advocates have also cautioned the city from moving ahead with a school at 24th and State. That’s despite the community’s longstanding desire for a new school that would serve a growing Chinese American population — and because they want to stand with majority Black public housing residents.

Advocates would also want Jones College Prep in the South Loop to open more seats for neighborhood residents. It’s currently a selective enrollment high school.

And the group would like to see millions of dollars in additional investments in nearby high schools such as Phillips, Dunbar, Tilden and Kelley.

CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said district officials feel they’ve engaged a wide range of stakeholders and still believe their proposal “is responsive to the student population needs of the area and will ensure a diverse student body.”

“The site at 24th and State is central to all the neighborhoods this school is hoping to serve, and it is accessible via various modes of transportation,” Fergus said.

The district has met with advocates and considered The 78 site, Fergus said, but officials don’t see it as a viable option.

“In addition to infrastructure challenges, The 78 has limited space and would be costly as it would house two tax-free entities residing in a large development. Finally, and importantly, The 78 would cut many of our Black families from attending the proposed school due to distance and subsequent transit time.”

It’s not clear if more money for those schools would prevent them from losing students in any case. Education equity advocates have said there are no circumstances under which a new school should be built on the Near South Side because it could hurt schools like Phillips regardless of any additional investment.

And Wilson, as he made the pitch for this proposal, acknowledged the idea still wouldn’t eliminate the harm to surrounding schools — no proposal would, he said. But the idea may reduce harm to those communities.

“$10 million is not enough, it’s not,” he said. “But this is a good starting point. That’s what we want to make sure we’re clear on. This is not the ending point.”

Despite the objections, advocates still worry the city will try to build the school on public housing land and without any of their proposed protections. CPS CEO Pedro Martinez pulled the plan from the Board of Education agenda in June, hours before a vote on its approval, citing concerns. But the Chicago Housing Authority a few weeks later approved leasing the land to CPS for a new school.

Wilson said Lightfoot is “stacking the deck” to force through her vision without considering those affected, pointing to her replacing a school board member opposed to the school with one of her allies.

“It’s their job to listen to us and do what we want to do,” Wilson said of elected officials. “It’s not about them thinking what’s best for us. We know what we need.”

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