Chicago Public Schools officials want to convert National Teachers Academy elementary school into a new high school serving the South Loop and Chinatown, paving the way for a new high school in Englewood.
During closed-door meetings with small groups of aldermen, CPS officials have floated two plans for Englewood, which has too few students for its remaining neighborhood high schools, according to Ald. Ray Lopez (15th).
One, which appears for now to be the less likely to go through, would close four sparsely enrolled schools — Harper, Hope, Robeson and Team Englewood — and renovate a fifth once a moratorium on school closings ends, Lopez said.
The other plan calls for closing all five Englewood high schools — the four plus Richards — and building a new $75 million high school in the vicinity of a new Whole Foods store across from Kennedy-King College.
If NTA, which has 684 students, becomes a high school serving the Near South Side, CPS says that would free up capital funding to build a new high school in Englewood, and in the process, appease two groups of South Siders who’ve been clamoring for a high-quality high school open to neighborhood students.
South Loop’s new $44 million annex will be paid for by tax-increment funding. The rest of the construction would be paid for through borrowing via the issuance of bonds sold against a $43 million property-tax hike approved by the Chicago City Council nearly two years ago for the sole purpose of school construction and renovation, officials said.
All but a few NTA students would be automatically redistricted to South Loop Elementary, the boundaries of which would be expanded from 18th Street to Cermak Road, Janice Jackson, the school system’s chief education officer, said Tuesday before the first of three community meetings on the plans.
“When there was an announcement about the new school going up, we heard from a lot of parents living within the region, who were not currently in the South Loop boundary, that they wanted access to the new school building,” Jackson said. “A brand new, state-of-the-art facility is going up, and they want access for their children.”
She pointed to the benefits of diversifying the South Loop, which is far wealthier and far more white than CPS’ average.
“If you merge these two school communities, the South Loop school would be much more diverse both racially and socioeconomically,” Jackson said. “That level of integration is good for for all students involved.”
She said the plans still might change and that CPS wants to hear from community residents: “It’s important to note that this is our best thinking at this time, and we really want to get their reaction.”
She would not confirm any Englewood developments.
Some families who’ve stuck with NTA — where about 80 percent of the students are African-American and from low-income homes — are upset that their community might be shaken up to keep wealthier parents happy.
Latasha M. Watkins drives her kindergarten-age son about 9 miles every day from 87th and Jeffery to attend the regional gifted center at NTA, which she chose because her 4-year-old also will be able to attend whether or not he tests into the selective classes.
“We have completely bought into NTA,” Watkins told the Chicago Sun-Times. “So it was disappointing to hear all this happening. We felt like we found a gem. I’m frankly just very appalled by the entire process that they’ve followed, saying they’ll make the decision with the community without involving the whole community.”
Watkins said that, until now, CPS hasn’t communicated with the NTA community about the plans. The principal told crowds Tuesday night he learned his school could close from the press.
Watkins said CPS hasn’t considered a less-expensive plan — such as expanding NTA’s boundary north to alleviate South Loop’s overcrowding and using any capital money to build another high school.
“It’s no secret with CPS that many parents on the North Side of 18th Street have said this is not a viable option,” Watkins said. “It further inflames the issue of segregation.”
And while South Loop parents reminded officials at the meeting of the sacrifices their children have endured as the school’s population grew — no more library or rooms for art and music, no space now for the regional gifted center or preschool — several also wondered why NTA had to be dismantled.
When CPS opened up new high schools on the North Side, “They weren’t taking over other schools,” Kathleen Yang-Clayton said at a feisty three-hour meeting. “Why is that the low expectations in this community make it ok with being pitted against each other?”
NTA’s eighth-grade valedictorian Janae Smith also wondered, “Instead of trying to fix something that isn’t broken, can we try to better our low level high schools?”
Ald. Pat Dowell, whose 3rd Ward includes NTA, said, “There’s a tremendous need for a neighborhood high school in the South Loop.” But Dowell said she’s reserving judgement until after the meetings.
David Wu of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American community reiterated that need, saying that Chinese students at four elementary schools have fanned out to 47 high schools across the city — but “not one student went to Phillips, not one student went to Tilden,” their assigned neighborhood schools.
Lopez said he opposes both plans “because they call for the closing of more schools in communities that don’t need more school closures — particularly mine, such as Harper High School, which is actually starting to see new families enroll and a population increase. To force them anywhere else throughout the community would just be disastrous.”
“Last time, forcing kids to go just two or three blocks out of the way, we lost a significant amount of our student population,” he said.
Ald. Danny Solis (25th), whose ward includes Chinatown, said he supports converting NTA into a new high school to ease crowding.
“The NTA site has so much room for expansion in terms of the amount of property that it has,” Solis said. “In the short term, you can start small and then, you can build if there’s a bigger need that comes up.
“But it’s important that we don’t forget about the grammar school and the kids that are going to the NTA. now and that they have a plus or a benefit to where they’re gonna go to finish up their grammar school years,” he said. “I want to be satisfied that the grammar school kids who are going there now are also going to have an opportunity with a new and larger grammar school.”
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, commended the mayor for finding a way to appease both communities demanding new high schools without breaking the bank.
“Demographics has shown that it is desperately in need of a high school in that South Loop-Chinatown area,” Brookins said. “It makes sense to put it there — especially if the teachers academy is under-utlilized or not being utilized.
Though Lopez is against high school consolidation in Englewood, Brookins said, “All of the other aldermen who have a piece of Englewood” are on board with the controversial plan.
“Many of our African-American constituents say, ‘We never seem to get anything. We never seem to be benefiting by new schools being built, etc.,’ ” Brookins said. “For all of those reasons, and if it was necessary to [close schools], absolutely yes I would be for it.”