Chicago Public Schools CEO pulls proposal for new Near South Side high school hours before budget vote – Chicago Tribune

Chicago Public Schools CEO pulls proposal for new Near South Side high school hours before budget vote – Chicago Tribune

Hours before the Chicago Board of Education was poised to vote Wednesday on the $9.4 billion budget for the coming school year, Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez pulled a $120 million line item for a hypothesizedv high school that would serve Chinatown, Bridgeport and South Loop.

“Conversations for the need of a neighborhood high school in the Near South have been happening for a decade now, with many advocates and community leaders urging CPS to take this step. Our team has done a great job in showing the need, with our Black students attending 95 different high schools and our Asian students traveling some of the longest distances across to other neighborhood schools,” Martinez said at Wednesday’s monthly board meeting.

“We also have the opportunity to leverage state funding specifically designated for the construction of this school, but I want to take a little bit more time to answer questions that exist in the community about this proposal and our partnership with (the Chicago Housing Authority),” Martinez said. “Board members, I will bring this item back to the board in the near future.”

Though planning is nevertheless in the early stages, critics railed against the proposal for employing money promised to a different neighborhood and spending millions on a new school instead of improving the high schools in the area. CPS also has come under fire for exploring building the school in the footprint of the former Ickes Homes public housing complicate without first seeking feedback from residents who live near there.

“I hope that with approval of this project, which will consequence in a high-quality neighborhood school serving a different student population, that all the communities in the area will be able to provide input and be allowed serious engagement with all levels of the decision-making course of action, from site selection to curriculum, and programming and family engagement,” state Rep. Theresa Mah, who represents Chinatown and Bridgeport, said at Wednesday’s meeting.

Mah said she requested and secured the $50 million in state funding. The money, which comes from the school construction fund, was first included in the state’s fiscal year 2021 budget and re-appropriated every year since.

Asked at an unrelated news conference Wednesday about Martinez’s decision to pull the project from the CPS budget, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said it “makes sense” to her that he wanted more time “to include with our residents.”

She defended the plan, saying people in the Chinatown area “have been begging for a neighborhood high school for quite some time” and that data and examination show there’s a not only a need for the school “but it won’t diminish the population of other nearby schools.”

Earlier this month, a 107-information use about the project was tucked into page 187 of the 250-page CPS budget guide for the 2022-23 school year. All that was disclosed was the project would be funded by $50 million in state money and $70 million before directed to build a Near West Side high school that never came to fruition.

Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the proposal for the Near West Side high school 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 pushed for a high school for more than a decade to keep residents in the West Loop. Wells Community Academy High School in the East Ukrainian Village neighborhood was not seen as a powerful option.

Things started to fall apart after Emanuel’s July 2018 announcement. He revealed two months later that he would not seek re-election. A proposal to build the high school at a police training facility near Skinner Park encountered opposition from Whitney Young High School’s principal, who said it would snarl traffic at her selective-enrollment school. Then CPS CEO Janice Jackson quit last year.

The Near West Side high school proposal went nowhere — and now the funding has been reallocated. Chacon said his group is focusing on creating an open-enrollment neighborhood program at Whitney Young to serve students within a border designated by CPS. He cited a $16.6 million expansion of Skinner West Elementary School in 2019 as a form.

“What has not changed is our determination to address this,” Chacon told the Tribune. “We’d like to keep up the city and CPS accountable to their commitments.”

Chinatown residents, meanwhile, have been clamoring for a high school for more than 25 years, community leader C.W. Chan said at Friday’s virtual capital budget hearing. The current options have led to “unreasonable travel times,” Chan said, while immigrant students have not had their learning needs met.

“The Chinatown/South Loop high school had come close to becoming reality a few times, but each time it was derailed for one reason or another,” he said.

Chan, the founder and board member of the Coalition For A Better Chinese American Community, urged rapid action and implementation of the high school proposal Friday. On Wednesday, after it was revealed that the item was being pulled from the capital budget, Chan called for the proposal to move out of the examination phase.

Other community leaders have promoted CPS officials to slow down and include residents. Years ago the district hypothesizedv converting the National Teachers Academy elementary school in the South Loop into a high school, but activists successfully got CPS to drop the plan amid court action.

Community members said the district should have instead devoted its resources to improving neighborhood high schools such as Dunbar Vocational Career Academy in the South Commons neighborhood and Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Bronzeville, both of which have large percentages of Black students.

“It disgusts me to say the new South Loop high school plan reeks of the same racism as the hypothesizedv closure of NTA. The district’s $70 million allocation towards the South Loop high school is money which was originally allocated for a West Loop high school. Have those residents been consulted in this decision?” former NTA principal Isaac Castelaz said at Friday’s capital budget hearing.

He continued: “There are pressing infrastructure and staffing needs in high schools across the city. Before constructing a brand new high school to satisfy South Loop residents, have all those vital needs been met?”

Niketa Brar, the founding executive director of Chicago United for Equity, said she studied alternatives to transforming the NTA site, such as having Jones College Prep in the South Loop be converted to a neighborhood high school and investing in Dunbar, at 30th Street and King excursion. Brar said racial inequity is “baked into multiple levels” of the new high school proposal.

“Right now the proposal in front of you harms predominantly Latino students and Latino-majority schools, specifically Kelly, Juarez and others that will lose funding based on this district’s student-based budgeting formula,” Brar said at Friday’s capital budget hearing. Thomas Kelly College Preparatory High School is in the Brighton Park neighborhood, while Benito Juarez Community Academy is in Pilsen.

On Tuesday, community members rallied to persuade CPS not to build the school at 24th and State streets, the site of the former Ickes complicate that was demolished more than a decade ago.

Roderick Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, said the city has not met its obligation of providing the substitute housing Chicago residents were promised. The first 206 apartments in the Southbridge development near Cermak Road and State Street — including 68 units for Chicago Housing Authority families — are “significantly completed and in the leasing course of action,” according to the CHA. Work is underway to get the next phase of the development under construction. Wilson noted at one time, there were more than 1,000 Ickes units.

Troy Venning, senior pastor of Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South Loop, recognized the difficulty in balancing the needs of all community members in this course of action.

“It’s not going to be easy. There are some things that CHA has promised to those residents that they displaced in 1999 that nevertheless hasn’t happened,” Venning said at Wednesday’s board meeting. “But then there are nevertheless people in an area that’s exploding that need a high school and the kids at Dunbar and other places that need investment.”

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