Chicago Public Schools (CPS) revealed late last year in their 2017 capital plan that a new seventy-five million dollar high school would be coming to the South Side. Initially, CPS did not release the location of the new high school, and several neighborhoods, such as Chinatown and Englewood, had been organizing and campaigning to be involved in the decision-making process.
Yesterday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced at a news conference at the vacant lot of the old Kennedy-King College that the new high school would be heading to Englewood.
Englewood has seen multiple recent public school closings and also received some of the city’s newest major public investment efforts, including a new Whole Foods, which opened in September 2016 on 63rd and Halsted, a Chipotle, and a Starbucks. According to the Sun Times, Emanuel mentioned these investments during his news conference on Tuesday as part of his “holistic” strategy in increasing economic development and jobs in Englewood in order to fight crime.
However, what Emanuel didn’t mention at his news conference was that with a new high school in Englewood, the district would allegedly have to shut down and consolidate anywhere from four to six neighborhood schools, including under-enrolled schools like Hope, Harper, TEAM Englewood, and Robeson. According to WBEZ, these four high schools in Englewood “have among the smallest freshmen classes in the city.” Englewood’s neighborhood schools have long been facing plummeting student enrollment numbers as the neighborhood’s population has fallen and its students have been given additional options in enrollment, such as charter schools that lie outside of neighborhood school attendance boundary lines. Subsequently, neighborhood schools are losing the funding for programs that could make them more attractive to surrounding students, such as advanced academic programming and extracurricular activities.
Megan Hougard, the Chief of Schools of CPS’s Network 11 (which includes Englewood and Auburn Gresham), addressed the falling enrollment numbers at a Residents’ Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.) meeting on January 17. Despite the “bashing” of neighborhood schools, she said, the network is still showing considerable progress and has “a lot to be proud of.” Last year, the elementary schools in the district maintained over ninety-five percent of their average daily attendance and have displayed the most attendance growth out of any district in Chicago.
Roderick Sawyer, the Alderman of the Sixth Ward, who was also in attendance at the R.A.G.E. meeting, also stressed the importance of appreciating and maintaining the progress of Englewood schools like Robert Lindblom Math & Science Academy, which Mayor Emanuel also praised for its academic achievement during his news conference on Tuesday.
Lindblom, located in West Englewood, was renovated in 2003 and reopened in 2005 as Chicago’s only math- and science-focused college preparatory public school. However, Lindblom’s status as a selective enrollment high school, where students must test-in in order to attend, limits the number of students from the neighborhood that can enroll.
Several community advocacy groups had openly voiced their support for bringing a new high school to Englewood. Denise Dyer, an organizer with the Greater Englewood Community Action Council, said the group is looking forward to a new high school in order to retain their high achieving students that tend to enroll into schools outside of the neighborhood. She recalled the salutatorian of Nicholson STEM Academy, an elementary school in Englewood, leaving for Whitney M. Young High School, a West Loop school that boasts more robust STEM programming than schools in Englewood.
But residents of Englewood like Derrick Lawson, an alumnus of Harper High School, are still deeply skeptical of the changes that the potential new high school would bring to the neighborhood.
“The schools considered bad now were good back then,” he said. “Going to Harper saved me. Back then, I could walk to school every day. And all the neighborhood kids who went to that school all knew each other, so there were no fights.” His most significant concern with the new high school, however, is whether or not the school will be able to properly serve the black students of Englewood.
“What teachers will be at the new high school?” he asked. “The older teachers, who were predominately black, are pushed out of high schools during changes in order to bring newer teachers. I would be more comfortable being taught by people who look like me.”
Over the years, the percentage of black teachers working for CPS has fallen, despite black students consistently representing a significant percentage of CPS students. According to WBEZ’s Natalie Moore, “the [CPS] teaching workforce is whiter and less experienced.” In 2000, forty percent of teachers in all CPS schools were black and black students made up a little over fifty percent of all students in CPS. Now, despite declining enrollment numbers, black students still make up about forty percent of the students in CPS schools, but are more likely to be taught by white teachers. According to the Illinois Report Card for the City of Chicago, from 2007 to 2016 the percentage of black teachers in CPS schools dropped steadily from thirty-three percent to twenty-two percent.
Other Englewood high school teachers in attendance at the R.A.G.E. meeting shared this concern about significant faculty changes.
“I don’t oppose new schools,” said Curtis Bynum, a former teacher and a current CTU organizer. “The residents of Englewood have been ready…they have every right to a new school. But if you’re going to build a new school, make certain that the new school has the services necessary to adequately serve the community…don’t build a new building on the backs of the residents of the city just for political stance or show. Put things in place.”
According to Bynum, CPS’ track record with creating new schools in South Side neighborhoods has been less than stellar.
Bynum previously worked as a teacher for the Miles Davis Magnet Academy, a Pre-K to eighth grade school that opened as an engineering-focused school in 2008 after the closings of Miles Davis School and Johns Middle Academy. The remodeled Miles Davis boasted a brand new facility and the district’s first hands-on engineering program. According to Bynum, the school was not properly equipped to meet the needs of the neighborhood and the students that attended it.
“[Davis] was great in terms of structure, but there were limited resources in the building to help it thrive in the way you would’ve wanted to see the kids thrive,” he said. “It was maybe a fifty-million-dollar building. A couple of years later, they eliminated the librarian position. How does that help children grow? It’s not as if the children can’t learn. It’s as if CPS has written these children off.”
“What will happen to qualified veteran teachers?” Bynum continued. “CPS and its track record have shown that when they begin to hire, they do away with the old and bring in the new…a new building does not equal that they need new teachers. You have to know the demographics of the children. You have to understand where those children are. You have to meet them where they are and help them grow and develop.”
Bynum emphasized the necessity of proper special education, crisis intervention, and vocational programs for any new neighborhood school that would properly devote itself to addressing and supporting the needs of its students.
“If you want your school, fine,” he said. “But make sure you have your voice in this, or else CPS will get it wrong.”
Prior to Emanuel’s news conference, advocates and families in Chinatown had been fighting for this new high school to come to their neighborhood because of the lack of nearby neighborhood schools. According to the Sun-Times, the nearest high schools to Chinatown, like Thomas Kelly, Whitney Young, and King College Prep, are not underperforming schools, but require students from Chinatown to spend hours on several buses to get to and from school.
The Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC) and many Chinatown residents have been asking for a new high school for about ten years. They have held huge community forums and passed around petitions in the past but ultimately didn’t result in any changes. Debbie Liu, the Community Development Coordinator at CBCAC, said their most recent push was largely due to their new Chinatown Vision Plan, which launched in 2015. Around 2013, CBCAC collected data from residents, business owners, and tourists, who provided feedback about the neighborhood’s lack of a library, field house, and high school. Now they have the library and the field house, but are still working to bring a new high school.
“We recognized that there were many needs that weren’t addressed in this community even though we’ve been around for a hundred years,” Liu said. “Chinatown’s centennial was in 2012. We need to figure out the next hundred years of Chinatown.”
The lack of public high schools in the area is largely due to the Chinatown area’s historical population of Irish and Italian families, many of whom sent their kids to Catholic schools instead of public schools. But according to Liu, there is a growing number of Chinese Americans in Chinatown who are looking for more options to educate their kids. The schools Chinatown students attend now are not only far away but also do not provide Limited English Proficiency programs. Ultimately, she said, the residents of Chinatown wanted a nearby neighborhood high school that has strong teachers and is sensitive to the community’s cultural and linguistic needs.
Chinatown residents and organizers had appealed to their aldermen and staff from the Mayor’s office and CPS, and testified at CPS hearings and board meetings. However, even with the newest announcement from the mayor, Chinatown organizers are still planning on advocating for a new high school. According to Liu, CBCAC plans on meeting with the community soon in order to strategize for their next steps, which may include a town hall forum or a press conference.
“Need is always going to be there until it gets addressed,” Liu noted. “We want to make sure CPS is very aware of this. But there’s a need for quality high school access anywhere in the city. Education has not been equitably addressed in the city of Chicago. The way it becomes framed is that this community deserves it or this community needs it—so all these other communities lose. I feel bad that it had to come down to one community getting it over another community.”
Last August, WBEZ released a preliminary “internal planning list” of 2017 CPS projects. The list is organized into columns titled “Overcrowding Relief,” “Deferred Maintenance,” “Site/Target Improvements,” and “Committed Projects.” One row under the “Site/Target Improvements” column, however, is curiously labeled “New Englewood Area HS,” and is allotted fifty million dollars. Emily Bittner, a spokesperson for CPS, later told WBEZ that the “final number of projects is dependent on financing,” but CPS had clearly chosen to finance a new South Side high school, having slated the seventy-five million dollars for “New South Side High School Construction” in their 2017 capital plan. In the 2017 capital plan, however, the location of the new school was listed as “TBD.”
Before Emanuel’s announcement on Tuesday, CPS officials have said that they were in the process of receiving “community feedback” before making a final decision, and had not offered clear timelines on the decision process to organizers and officials from either neighborhood. With the release of the internal planning list of 2017 CPS projects, and as Englewood has been the neighborhood of focus for many of the city’s recent South Side public investment projects, the ultimate decision to bring this new high school to Englewood was not a surprise to many. However, it is still not clear what made CPS and the mayor finally choose Englewood or why they refrained from releasing a location of the new high school in their 2017 capital plan when their 2016 internal planning list specifically named Englewood as the recipient of their new high school.
Still, residents and organizers from Englewood have made it clear that CPS needs to provide ample support and resources for the students, teachers, and staff of this new high school. This school must be more than a consolation prize or a publicity stunt—it must be carefully implemented while taking into account the input of the community members in which it serves.
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