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CPS urged to come clean about South Side high school closings

Ald. Roderick Sawyer met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board

Ald. Roderick Sawyer | Sun-Times file photo

The chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus on Wednesday urged the Chicago Public Schools to come clean about how many South Side high schools it intends to close to make way for a $75 million high school in Englewood.

One day after Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the new school would be built in Englewood, Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) demanded to know the political price South Side residents would have to pay to get it.

“I want to know where it’s gonna be. I want to know if it’s gonna displace other schools. Are they moving one school into another? I want to know what type of school it will be and what the financial commitment is. I want as much information as I can get. I want to know everything,” Sawyer said.

“I’m not advocating for school closings. But I acknowledge there are tremendously underutilized schools in the Englewood area. If it means strengthening the overall school system in Englewood, I would consider going along with school closings. But we need to know the specifics.”

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said she had no details to share since “no final decisions have been made.”

“CPS will continue listening to the community about its priorities around a potential high school on the South Side before cementing future plans,” she said in an email.

Sources tell the Sun-Times no specific location has been identified for the new school that certainly would result in the closing of several existing South Side high schools.

Leon Finney was among the dozens of supporters, including the Englewood Community Advisory Council, who asked the Board of Education in recent months to put the new school in Englewood.

“It’s a great thing for people who think they’ve been kicked around and ignored and abandoned,” said Finney, a former member of the Chicago Planning Commission. “At least for the mayor to say he’s going to be behind this, that’s important. It’s important for the mayor, for the aldermen, for public officials to listen to the people.”

Sawyer said his “personal preference” would be to make the new high school a “hybrid.”

“I would like to have a selective enrollment school in the area,” the alderman said. “We don’t have enough on the South Side. But I would also love to have a strong neighborhood school. So my preference is some kind of combination. Half selective enrollment, half neighborhood school. That’s an option I’d like to look at.”

“Kids could benefit from having high achievers and neighborhood kids together. . . . If kids are struggling, they can see what they can become.”

Five aldermen represent parts of Englewood: Sawyer, Ray Lopez (15th), Toni Foulkes (16th), David Moore (17th) and Willie Cochran (20th).

Sawyer said he hopes to “talk this out” with all of them and hash out lingering security concerns once CPS provides specifics.

“Anytime there’s talk of closing neighborhood schools, there’s concern with kids crossing [gang] boundary lines — if there is such a thing anymore. It seems like every block is a boundary line these days. But I ultimately hope we can get past that,” Sawyer said.

Citing safety concerns, Emanuel spared high schools from the 2013 round of school closings that targeted a record 50 schools in predominantly black neighborhoods on the South and West sides.

The mayor was determined to avoid a repeat of the savage beating death of 16-year-old Fenger High School student Derrion Albert, an attack captured on a cellphone video that went viral, after an earlier round of high school closings.

High school consolidations could be addressed after a five-year school closing moratorium expires in the fall of 2018. The Chicago Sun-Times reported in late December that between four and six under-enrolled South Side high schools could be on the chopping block to make way for a new high school.

Families in Chinatown and Roseland also have asked the district to put a new high school in their communities.

On Tuesday, while at the site of the old Kennedy-King College to highlight a previously announced plan to build vehicle maintenance facility on the Englewood site, the mayor highlighted the new high school as part of his “holistic” strategy to fight crime by rebuilding long-neglected inner-city neighborhoods.

“We also know investing in our education, our afterschool and summer jobs here — which is why we’re talking about a new high school in this area — is important to our safety and vibrancy of the community,” the mayor said.

The mayor did not mention the downside of the equation: the $75 million Englewood high school will be built not far from the new Whole Foods at 63rd and Halsted across the street from Kennedy-King College only after several under-enrolled South Side high schools are closed.

Five South Side high schools count 150 or fewer total students in all four grades. TEAM Englewood, 6201 S. Stewart, had just 15 freshman as of an October count. At Robeson, it was 23 freshman in a school of only 152 children. Just five years ago, Robeson, 6835 S. Normal, had 192 students in its freshmen class, and a total of 734.

Since CPS assigns money for hiring teachers based on the number of students they enroll, those population plunges have led the district to ship extra money to several high schools just so they could offer a full slate of courses. And less funding means fewer programs to lure new students.

Most of the South Side high schools with the lowest enrollments also have special education populations more than twice CPS’ average of about 13 percent. For example, just over 36 percent of students at Robeson and at Hope High School, 5515 S. Lowe, are special education.