Our Pledge To You

The Watchdogs

With CPS set to close 4 South Side schools, questions on community support

Members of the West Englewood Coalition shout in support of the proposed new Englewood high school during a community meeting held by Chicago Public Schools at Kennedy King College on Jan. 10. | Max Herman / Sun-Times

When Chicago Public Schools leaders announced plans to permanently close Englewood’s four high schools and replace them with a new, $85 million school, they cited the schools’ plunging enrollment along with community support.

Yet the plans drew vocal opposition at meetings since mid-January that the school system set up to demonstrate that support. Shouting matches erupted, and police were called in at one as parents and students complained that the four schools collectively had seen enrollment plunge to under 500 due to CPS officials’ neglect.

The parents and students confronted a group who, appearing at the meetings in matching West Englewood Coalition hats and sweatshirts, spoke in favor of the plan championed by new CPS CEO Janice Jackson to close Harper, Hope, Robeson and Team Englewood high schools. They questioned who was behind them and where they’re from.

Several members of a steering committee created to work on designing the new high school have since threatened to quit, saying CPS is using them to justify its plans, which the Chicago Board of Education is set to take a final vote on this Wednesday.

Some of the community support CPS officials repeatedly have cited has come from outside the economically depressed South Side neighborhood, according to public records and interviews.

And emails, obtained from CPS through a public records requests, show a top school board aide and a politically connected pastor, Leon Finney Jr., worked together to “utilize the community action council there as a base for community engagement.” That’s what John Scott, CPS’ director of board relations, wrote to the Board of Ed’s president in December “after meeting with Dr. Finney.” Six months earlier, Scott had emailed Finney and Jackson with ideas for building community involvement on the plans for “the closed high schools and the potential for site of the new high school.”

Leon Finney Jr. | Sun-Times files

Among the loudest voices backing the plans have been Dori Collins, a longtime CPS contractor who co-chairs Englewood’s CPS Community Action Council, and fellow CAC member Tyson Everett, who heads the West Englewood Coalition, which is based in Homewood.

Asked about her ties to Englewood, Collins, who says she doesn’t live in the South Side community, says she has done volunteer work with schools and points to training programs that she has run for parents under contract with CPS. The bulk of the work on $157,000 of work for CPS that Collins has done since 2010 was done elsewhere in the city.

Then-Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool and other officials announcing plans for a new high school in Englewood and closing the South Side neighborhood’s existing four high schools. Dori Collins, co-chair of CPS’ Englewood Community Action Council, is in the gray suit, third from right. Current CPS CEO Janice Jackson is second from right. | Lauren FitzPatrick / Sun-Times

That a key supporter claiming to represent the community is a paid CPS contractor seemed to surprise Jackson when asked in an interview about Collins.

“Do we have a vendor?” Jackson, who initially pushed the plan as CPS’ chief education officer before being named chief executive officer after Forrest Claypool was forced out in December, asked a Sun-Times reporter. “I don’t think she’s doing business with CPS.”

Records show Collins has received about $15,000 from CPS during the time officials have been pushing ahead on the high school plan.

Collins is also a member of the committee to shape the new school, to be built on the Robeson campus at 6832 S. Normal, and opening September 2019.

Everett and others from the West Englewood Coalition say it was formed at least five years ago, though it was incorporated in November by Everett and relatives including his wife and son, listing the family’s address in Homewood. Other members of the committee working on the new school say they hadn’t heard of the group until last year.

“We’ve been around,” says Everett, who runs Bridging the Tys to Jordan, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center at 71st and Vincennes. “Just because it wasn’t legally incorporated doesn’t mean the coalition of individuals hadn’t been talking, meeting and advocating and doing stuff around in the community.”

West Englewood Coalition members at a hearing Jan. 10 at Kennedy-King College, supporting plans to close Englewood’s four high schools and replace them with a new one on the campus of the current Robeson High School. | Max Herman/  Sun-Times

CPS’ community action councils set their own rules on residency. Englewood’s is open to anyone who’s interested.

“We should have had more parents involved and on the CACs and on the steering committee,” Jackson says. “That was something that we were critiqued on, and that was a missed opportunity.”

Erica Brown, a mother of two Harper High School students, urges Chicago Public Schools officials not to close Englewood’s four high schools durinjg a hearing Jan. 10 at Kennedy-King College. | Max Herman / Sun-Times

Two days before the Englewood council met in January 2017, Finney emailed Jackson and Scott, saying it’s “crucial that we accelerate,” “set the agenda for the CAC meeting” and ensure “that if there is a decision made by the CAC it is consistent with… calling for a New Hi School in Englewood because the Chinese have already spoke.”

A coalition from Chinatown had asked CPS to earmark money budgeted for a new South Side high school to be used closer to their community.

Finney offered to “assist core/key members of the CAC in the preparation of a draft set of resolutions to be considered during the Friday CAC” and develop “a media strategy to amplify” any decisions.

Finney, whose company Urban Broadcast Media has a $50,000 contract to help enroll CPS students in Woodlawn and Bronzeville, says he wasn’t paid for working to build support for the Englewood plans.

A CPS spokesman said the district “has done extensive outreach in public meetings, conversations with stakeholders and other groups to make sure that we understood the community’s needs. Ultimately, more than 90 percent of Englewood high school students don’t attend their neighborhood schools, and, with a new, $85 million neighborhood high school that rivals the city’s best schools, they will have a great reason to stay.”

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool hugs Leon Finney Jr., who spoke in support of Claypool after his resignation was announced at a news conference at CPS headquarters on Dec. 8. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Leon Finney CPS emails by The Watchdogs on Scribd