Hours before the Chicago Board of Education was ready to vote on Wednesday’s proposed $9.5 billion budget for the upcoming school year, Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez pulled a $120 million line item for a proposed high school that would serve Chinatown, Bridgeport, and the South Loop.
“Conversations about the need for a high school in the Middle South neighborhood have been going on for a decade, and many advocates and community leaders are urging CPS to take the step. Our team did a great job identifying the need given that our black students attend 95 different high schools and our Asian students travel some of the furthest distances to other schools in the neighborhood,” Martinez said at Wednesday’s monthly board meeting.
“We also have the option of using government funds that are earmarked specifically for the construction of this school, but I’d like to take some extra time to answer questions that are being raised in the community about this proposal and our partnership with (the Chicago Housing Authority) exist. ‘ Martinez said. “Board members, I will bring this point back to the Board in the near future.”
Though planning is still in the early stages, critics railed against the proposal to use funds promised to another neighborhood and spend millions on a new school rather than upgrading high schools in the area. CPS has also come under fire for studying building the school on the footprint of the former Ickes Homes public housing complex without first gathering feedback from residents who live nearby.
The announcement of a newly planned Near South Side High School was not an announcement at all. A 107-word paragraph was added to page 187 of the 250-page CPS Budget Guide for 2022-23. All that was announced was that the project would be funded with $50 million in government money and $70 million previously earmarked for building a Near West Side High School, which never came to fruition.
Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the Near West Side High School proposal in the summer of 2018 ahead of that year’s budget vote. Armando Chacon, a real estate agent and president of the West Central Association, said his organization has been pushing for a high school to keep residents in the West Loop for more than a decade. Wells Community Academy High School in the East Ukrainian Village neighborhood was not seen as a compelling option.
After Emanuel’s announcement in July 2018, things started to fall apart. He announced two months later that he would not be re-elected. A proposal to build the high school at a former police academy near Skinner Park met with opposition from the principal of Whitney Young High School, who said it would disrupt traffic at their selective enrollment school. Then CPS boss Janice Jackson resigned last year.
The Near West Side High School proposal went nowhere — and now funding has been withdrawn. Chacon said his group is focused on creating a neighborhood program with open enrollment at Whitney Young to serve students within a boundary set by CPS. As a model, he cited a $16.6 million expansion of Skinner West Elementary School in 2019.
“What hasn’t changed is our determination to address this,” Chacon told the Tribune. “We want to hold the city and CPS accountable for their commitments.”
Chinatown residents, meanwhile, have been calling for a high school for more than 25 years, community leader CW Chan said at Friday’s virtual capital budget hearing. Current options have resulted in “inappropriate travel times,” Chan said, while failing to meet the learning needs of immigrant students.
“Chinatown/South Loop High School had come close to becoming a reality a few times, but each time it got derailed for one reason or another,” he said.
Chan, the founder and board member of the Coalition For A Better Chinese American Community, said as he urged quick action and implementation of the high school proposal.
However, other community leaders expressed hope that CPS officers would slow down and get community residents involved. Years ago, the district proposed building a high school on the site of the National Teachers Academy elementary school in the South Loop, but activists successfully got CPS to drop the proposal amid a court case. Community members said the district should have instead directed its resources to improving neighborhood high schools like Dunbar Vocational Career Academy in the South Commons neighborhood and Daniel Hale Williams Preparatory School of Medicine in Bronzeville, both of which have high percentages of black students .
“It disgusts me to say that South Loop’s new high school plan smacks of the same racism as the proposed NTA closure. The district’s $70 million allocation to South Loop High School is money originally earmarked for a West Loop high school. Were those residents consulted on this decision?” said former NTA director Isaac Castelaz at Friday’s capital budget hearing.
He continued, “There is an urgent need for infrastructure and staffing at high schools across the city. Before building a brand new high school, were all of these vital needs met to the satisfaction of South Loop residents?
Niketa Brar, the founding executive director of Chicago United for Equity, said she was exploring alternatives to building on the NTA site, such as King Drive. Brar said racial inequality was “burned into multiple layers” of the new high school proposal.
“Right now, the proposal you have before you is overwhelmingly hurting Latino students and Latino-majority schools, particularly Kelly, Juarez and others who will lose funding because of this district’s student budgeting formula,” Brar said at the capital budget hearing on Friday. Thomas Kelly College Preparatory High School is located in the Brighton Park district, while Benito Juarez Community Academy is located in Pilsen.
There’s more to come.