After years of futility, newest City Council member wants to deliver high school to Near South Side

“Applying to a selective enrollment school is sometimes harder than getting into college,” Ald. Nicole Lee told the Sun-Times. “And we need better quality options ... if you don’t happen to get that perfect score or score high enough.”

SHARE After years of futility, newest City Council member wants to deliver high school to Near South Side
Nicole Lee is sworn in as 11th Ward alderperson on Monday, March 28, 2022.

Nicole Lee was sworn in as 11th Ward alderperson on March 28.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

After decades of broken promises, newly-appointed Ald. Nicole Lee (11th) said Thursday her goal is to deliver the Near South Side high school desperately needed to keep middle-class families from fleeing to the suburbs.

Lee is the first Chinese-American and the first Asian-American woman ever to serve on the Chicago City Council. She is the single-mother of two teenaged sons. She had hoped they would someday be among the first students to attend a Chinatown high school.

Now, it’s too late for that. Nor does she need the alternative. One of her sons is a high school freshman smart enough and lucky enough to test into her alma mater, Whitney Young High School, one of Chicago’s premier selective enrollment high schools. Her younger son, now in 7th grade, also will attend Whitney Young. 

But Lee said Thursday she hopes to use her new position to champion the new high school that Chinatown residents and their 11th Ward neighbors have long deserved and demanded for years.

“I know families of all races that are faced with the same sort-of dilemma when their kids get to ... middle-school or junior high age and they’re having to think about what the process is going to be for high school. Applying to a selective enrollment school is sometimes harder than getting into college,” Lee told the Sun-Times.

“It’s a lot of stress — on the children, on the young people and on families, as well. It’s a fact. It’s happening. And we need better quality options,” she said. Otherwise, “if you don’t happen to get that perfect score or score high enough and don’t have just the right combination of coveted spots ... your only other two options are to go to a school, maybe where you don’t feel safe or have your family move to an area where you don’t have to worry about that.”

The 11th Ward has “wonderful elementary schools,” but not enough high schools, Lee said. That must change to keep middle-class families in the neighborhood, she said. 

“CPS and the city — there’s plenty of will there. The reality of it — this needle that has to be threaded — is on the execution. There’s not a whole lot of land and available space to sort of build new or convert. It’s a very complex challenge,” she said. 

“But I feel good that community organizations, parents, city officials as well as CPS are working toward the same goal.” 

In 2018, a Circuit Court judge blocked a controversial plan by Chicago Public Schools to convert the National Teachers Academy, 55 W. Cermak, into a high school. When CPS decided within hours not to appeal the ruling, the plan was scrapped. 

NTA remained an elementary school. As a high school, it mainly would have served the rapidly growing South Loop, as well as Bridgeport and Chinatown. High school boundaries that had been changed to make room for the new high school were changed back.

Two years later, the Illinois General Assembly set aside $50 million in a new capital budget for a new high school to be built on the Near South Side, to the delight of Chinatown residents. 

At the time, proponents acknowledged CPS would still need to commit upwards of $60 million for the project to have any chance.

No apparent progress has been made since then. A CPS spokesman said Thursday, “If state funding is re-appropriated, we are committed to assessing the feasibility for a new high school to service the region.”

Neighborhood kids have continued to attend 50 different schools around the city, racking up some of the city’s longest student commuting times. 

Dating back decades, Chinatown children have gone as far north as Senn High School in Rogers Park, a particularly diverse school and community where bilingual services are more likely to be found for Asian American families, surveys show.

Now that Asian Americans are Chicago’s fastest-growing ethnic group — up 31% in the 2020 census — it’s only fitting that CPS finally deliver the Near South Side high school that’s been desperately needed for years, Lee said.

“When I was a parent of elementary school kids in the community chairing the LSC [local school council], I was really hopeful something could be done so that my own children could attend the high school,” Lee said Thursday.

Now, “I don’t want to say in my lifetime, because that’s too long. I plan to live a really long time. But I absolutely want to be able to see it for the kids that are growing up in my neighborhood right now.”

Contributing: Nader Issa

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