Chicago Public Schools will come up with another plan to give residents of the Near South Side quality high school options now that National Teachers Academy won’t be closed and converted into a high school, CEO Janice Jackson said Wednesday.
“I want to publicly state that we are committed to exploring ways to strengthen the existing high school options in the Near South community and we will be working collaboratively with the residents to do just that,” Jackson told the Chicago Board of Education. She did not offer any details.
In a stunning turn of events, CPS backed down from its Board of Ed-approved plans to gradually close the top-rated NTA elementary school and change the building into an open-enrollment high school to serve the greater South Loop area, including Chinatown and Bridgeport. The about-face happened late Monday after a Cook County judge issued a preliminary injunction against the closing plans in what’s the first case of a judge interfering in a CPS school closing.
Many residents who had opposed the controversial conversion over the last two years had suggested putting the money into bolstering existing high schools near the South Loop so more parents would choose them. They were angry not only that CPS would close a high-performing African-American school for the convenience of the whiter, wealthier families moving into the South Loop, but also that money would be found to appease those families while Dunbar and Phillips wanted for investment.
When Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Pat Dowell had championed the new school, promised to Chinatown residents, they noted how few families in the area considered Phillips High School a viable option for their children, though that’s their assigned neighborhood high school. Phillips, home to just about 750 students now, holds CPS’ second-lowest rating but has made improvements in the last few years.
Dunbar High School in Bronzeville enrolls just about 300 students in its career and technical programs open citywide. Its building at 3000 S. King Drive could hold several times that number of kids.
Generation All, an organization that champions neighborhood schools, celebrated the new chance for CPS “to bring together the South Loop, Chinatown, Bridgeport and Bronzeville communities to reimagine Dunbar or Phillips as their very own multiracial, fully-resourced, high performing, neighborhood high school. It’s possible.”
The Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, who lobbied hard for an open-enrollment school though not at the cost of NTA, is waiting and eager to have those conversations. Chinatown has been asking in vain for a high school for decades, organizer Debbie Liu said.
“We’re trying to grapple with what to do next because CPS has promised to work on a solution for us,” she said. “Because this is not OK after 40 years.”
Dunbar High School isn’t too far. But there’s no single bus or train to get to Phillips and Tilden, where some families are already assigned.
There’s also the question of what happens to some $70 million added to the 2018-19 capital budget for a new “Near West High School” to be built around the newly-developed West Loop.
Meanwhile, without real investment in Chinatown, overlooked for many years, families are grappling with where to go.
“People are already getting displaced, moving for better schools, better resources,” Liu said. “To me it’s not just a high school issue. It’s now, do we really invest in these communities that have been there so long, not just giving them a physical building, giving them language and cultural resources that really remove the barriers for these kids.”