The National Teachers Academy (NTA), a neighborhood school on the Near South Side, is “one of the premier facilities in the school system,” one University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) expert said. Its teachers have received city and state awards. It outperforms most schools in the country for reading and most Chicago public schools for attendance, and it’s improving at above-average speed.
CPS wants it closed.
“This is the first time my son ever made progress in his life,” said Rekeia Williams, the mother of an NTA sixth-grader. “I credit it all to the environment of NTA.” She said the school taught him, literally and figuratively, the meaning of integrity.
In the late 1990s, when then-Mayor Daley locked in NTA’s $47 million budget, few Near South Side public schools outperformed any city or nationwide average. Today, the Teachers Academy is a Level 1 school, the second-highest rating in CPS’s five-tier system. About four-fifths of its students come from low-income homes.
“Once he got to NTA,” Williams said of her son, “it was straight-to-the-top success.”
“This is an absolutely excellent school,” said Latasha Watkins, whose son attends kindergarten at NTA’s gifted program. “My son is growing by leaps and bounds now—not only academically.”
In April, CPS chief education officer Janice Jackson announced a new plan: CPS would expand nearby South Loop Elementary School (SLES)’s attendance boundaries four blocks to the south.
The change would leave NTA with only seven zoned students—effectively closing the school. A week later, CPS announced another plan: NTA’s building, once its students were moved, would become a new neighborhood high school.
“We don’t have the additional dollars to build a brand new high school every time there is a lack of quality seats in an area,” Jackson said in a later interview.
CPS also announced that SLES, ten blocks north of NTA, would receive about $60 million in TIF funds for a new building—over five times more than the $9 million proposed late last year. CPS said the new campus, at 16th and Dearborn—now just three blocks north of NTA—will reduce overcrowding and anticipate a wave of new residents. SLES is currently at least twenty-six percent above its listed capacity, based on various CPS estimates. It’s not yet clear whether the new SLES campus will also incorporate its current building, which is about thirty years old. If it does not, incorporating NTA’s students, as CPS plans, would put the new building at 120 percent capacity. If it does, SLES would remain under capacity, but would have to maintain a large, multi-location campus.
“I’m curious why they’re not making that lot into a high school,” Williams said. “I know South Loop needs more space, but if you’re going to put $60 million into a school, why not put it into a high school that’s needed for the whole community? That’s a lot of money to put into one elementary school.”
The expanded funds and boundary lines were announced under embargo by SLES principal Tara Shelton a week before the public announcement, according to an NTA parent who works in City Hall and spoke off the record, citing concern for their job. NTA staff say they were not notified about the meeting. (Shelton did not respond to a request for comment). That the new boundaries meant a shutdown was disclosed by CPS later—after NTA circulated its own analysis of in-house data.
“We had been shut out of the process,” said Watkins.
SLES is a Level 1+ school, CPS’s highest rating. It performs well enough to attract students from outside its boundaries, who attend by application. CPS rejected public records requests on the out-of-boundary proportion, but former NTA principal Amy Rome recalls it as a source of overcrowding as early as 2009.
“There are several options that would allow for two integrated schools to exist,” Watkins said, “and there’s no discussion of them.”
Community members from NTA, SLES, and beyond say the plans were drawn up long ago—and are being presented without notice, transparency, or alternatives. They see the closure as motivated less by financial necessity than city politics. And in their fight to keep their school, they believe they’re up against the mayor, their alderman, and CPS top brass.
“None of our people will send our kids there.”
John Jacoby has been advocating for a new South Loop high school for about a decade. Jacoby, a partner at a Chicago law firm, is vice president of the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance (PDNA).
Jacoby said 3rd Ward alderman Pat Dowell, whose ward covers much of the South Loop below Roosevelt Road and extends some six miles south to parts of Washington Park, has used PDNA, formed in the wake of the South Loop development boom, as a “sounding board” for proposals on development and schooling.
“Should NTA people have been consulted?” he asked rhetorically. “Why all this backroom discussion? Who am I to sit down with CPS CEOs and try to steal NTA for the rich kids from the poor kids? I see all that coming. Frankly, that’s the way the system works.”
Jacoby’s oldest daughter attended SLES until starting eighth grade, and Jacoby served on its local school council until 2010.
“I’ve met with all the CEOs of CPS on this issue over the years,” said Jacoby. “Those personal connections—if you’re seen as somebody politically important in your area, it helps. I’ve poured a lot of time and dollars into pushing this issue along.”
Jacoby says he has been in meetings with members of the mayor’s office and got in touch with current CPS CEO Forrest Claypool as well, bringing his argument for the need for a South Loop high school to their attention.
The neighborhood high school for much of the Near South Side is Bronzeville’s Wendell Phillips, a Level 2 school where ninety-seven percent of students are from low-income households. Every student in Phillips’s last graduating class was accepted to a college or university, but it posts much lower test scores than selective schools like Jones College Prep, which Jacoby’s older daughter attended.
“Phillips as our high school doesn’t work,” Jacoby said. “Phillips has 500 kids at a building that could accommodate 1500,” Jacoby said. “Wells [on the Near North Side] is underutilized. That’s a valid argument. That is a valid argument. The answer to it is, none of our people will send our kids there. Face it.”
Jacoby later said he did not want to speak for other parents in the South Loop community.
Controlling the South Loop
Twenty years ago, observers were already making reference to “a decades-long tug-of-war for control of South Loop.” For SLES, that manifested in conflict between new developments and the public Hilliard Houses at State and Cermak.
Michael Klonsky, then director of UIC’s Small Schools Workshop, worked with SLES administration in its early years.
“[Former mayor] Jane Byrne said she would settle the conflict,” Klonsky said, “by making sure the school was available to all parents, Black and white, poor and middle-class. But a lot of the white parents weren’t about to send their children to school with kids from the projects. That led to big battles over whose turf the new South Loop Elementary would be.”
SLES opened in 1988, after two years of debate between Hilliard residents and affluent newer arrivals. A final compromise saw the school start with seventy percent minority enrollment.
Not everyone was satisfied. Hilliard residents, who had sought a new elementary school since the 1960s, felt slighted. And many homeowners in affluent South Loop developments feared SLES would end up “just another mostly poor, mostly Black public school in Chicago”—a student body more like NTA’s.
A few years later, with SLES seen as underperforming, CPS rejected a new proposal by those affluent parents: a charter school with a thirty-percent cap on low-income students. Once CPS administration nixed the charter plan, the team behind it shifted to lobbying for a more “viable” public school. Today, the SLES student body is twenty-nine percent low-income.
NTA was built on the site of the now-demolished Harold Ickes Homes’ community center. Then-Mayor Daley guaranteed that NTA, with extensive public facilities, would double as a replacement. But as the land picked up value, neighborhood residents remained skeptical that the city had their interests in mind.
NTA’s facilities were attractive, and some at SLES raised the idea of moving their middle school to the NTA building. CPS was amenable. Amy Rome, then NTA’s principal, said she first heard of the proposal when a reporter called for her take. SLES had hashed it out with CPS alone.
The plan entailed keeping the student bodies apart: a separate NTA entrance, staggered school hours—“so they wouldn’t need to be out in any common space with our kids,” Rome said—a separate cafeteria, and a separate main office. NTA saw it as a slap in the face.
When she suggested a more equitable merger, Jim Dispensa, at the time CPS’s demographics chief, said it wouldn’t happen. “Those families who bought those condos,” Rome recalls Dispensa saying, “don’t want to send their kids to NTA.”
After public hearings—with Dowell on NTA’s side—and mounting protests, CPS relented. District higher-ups apologized. They promised Rome that if CPS had another plan involving NTA’s building, they would seek NTA input from day one.
Without out-of-boundary students, and after the full move of the gifted center, NTA parents think each school would operate near ideal capacity. Rome and current NTA staff both estimate that, beyond the gifted program, NTA could absorb at least fifty SLES kids. The offer hasn’t gained traction.
As for the change in Dowell’s support?
“Politics,” Rome said.
Will Barroso is an SLES dad. He’ll join its local school council next month. He doesn’t think the building plan adds up.
“The building that’s going up will have capacity for 1,200 kids,” said Barroso. “We’re moving in with 850. Already you’re talking about adding 600. That puts us over capacity, and we haven’t even broken ground. How can we be over capacity before starting construction? That, to me, sounds absolutely insane.”
According to CPS’s website, NTA currently has a population of 685 students, and SLES has 765.
“It wasn’t South Loop’s decision to make this merger. It was more the alderman and CPS,” Barroso said, latter adding, “There could have been more transparency from the beginning. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell that these discussions happened long ago and these decisions were made long ago.”
“But strategically,” he added, “it doesn’t seem like that works in CPS’s favor, which is probably why they kept that under wraps.”
The $60 million grant came a week after some South Loop parents reportedly met behind closed doors with Emanuel. City Hall claimed “unforeseen technical issues” have kept it from fulfilling a public records request for relevant records.
The mayor’s public schedules for 2016 show a separate meeting with SLES parents, this one at the school itself. SLES’s first round of TIF grants was announced by City Hall two months later. (In the mayor’s public schedules, many private meetings are listed as “coffee with a friend” or “friends.”)
John Jacoby said Dowell “has made it clear” her priorities are SLES overcrowding and a new high school.
“I think it all comes down to the mayor’s office,” Jacoby said. “My guess is there was a lot of political pressure to get those two assets.”
What’s in it for Emanuel? The NTA parent in City Hall said they believe the mayor needs Dowell’s endorsement for his 2019 reelection.
Emanuel, whose popularity has tanked among Black voters, has to earn support from officials in majority-Black wards to keep his hopes alive. Both the new elementary and high school are slated to open months after the mayoral election.
Alderman Dowell provided a statement through a public relations firm. “This plan was born out of CPS’s need to address the severe overcrowding at South Loop Elementary School,” she said, stressing that it was strictly a proposal. “In the process of addressing this issue, CPS found an opportunity to solve two problems at once.”
But starting with a May hearing on the boundaries—held before the high school plan went public—Dowell was clearly startled by NTA opposition. Parents packed the house.
At that meeting, one NTA mother asked Dowell how she would help. Rekeia Williams and Will Barroso were present. “[Dowell] brushed her off,” Barroso said. “It was just totally offensive. I’m glad someone [else] spoke up and said, ‘No, no, you owe us more than this.’”
That someone was NTA parent Corey Harris, who protested from the audience. He said Dowell’s staff reached out to him after the meeting—to offer his daughter a spot in the gifted program at SLES. Harris believes Dowell was trying to buy him off.
“I told her that I’m not here for my daughter, I’m here for the community,” Harris said. “She told me, take the card, and we can get your daughter into the gifted program.”
Alderman Dowell, through a spokesman, called the allegation “absolutely untrue.” Harris, the alderman said, was upset that his daughter hadn’t won a spot in the gifted program, and although Dowell’s staff gave him a card to follow up, they say he never did.
“That’s not an honest explanation,” Harris said. He said he rejected the offer, and that Dowell told him, if he changed his mind, that her staff could get his daughter in.
Either way, NTA opposition and mixed publicity have put the alderman in a tough spot. Barroso wonders whether, to “gain some support from another part of the neighborhood, she’s willing to sacrifice her support” from NTA.
Williams said Dowell’s behavior at the meeting was what convinced her the deal was done.
CPS’s town halls are supervised by network chief Herald “Chip” Johnson. At the first hearing, on June 6, Johnson presented his role as nonpartisan.
Six days later, Johnson arranged a closed gathering of Near South Side elementary principals. According to one participant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Johnson asked the principals to recruit “individuals that could be vocal” for the next town hall.
Johnson handed out talking points in support of CPS’s plan, and encouraged principals to talk to parents about attending.
Alternative proposals “came up,” that participant said, but only at the suggestion of another principal. Using NTA, they said, “was presented as the preferred option.” CPS did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Will Barroso thinks SLES parents would consider other plans.
“A separate building for a high school is not a bad idea,” he said. “There’s plenty of land where you could accommodate it. If that conversation were had, I can’t imagine that South Loop [Elementary’s community] would oppose having it.”
As for CPS, Barroso said, “I don’t think they’ve done any research on what the other options are.”
But, he adds, “I think at this point the [SLES school council] doesn’t want to have those conversations. They don’t want the alderman or CPS to take our building away from us.”
Facing opposition, CPS has made a new case: repurposing NTA will yield enough savings to build a new high school in Englewood, on the South Side. The high school would cost less than the SLES development.
“If they put some of that sixty million [for SLES]” into other neighborhood schools, Rekeia Williams thinks many more students would benefit. “They are shutting us out of the process,” she said.
TIF “generates $500 million a year for this city,” Jacoby said, pointing out that City Hall has funded a range of projects based mainly on political pull.
“There’s plenty of money,” said Mike Klonsky. “TIF money, federal and state dollars to build new schools. There’s money galore for Lincoln Park or the South Loop—even when they already have pretty good schools.”
“My experience with these folks is that when they do hearings, it’s really to rein in the opposition,” he said. “If I was a betting man, I’d say the plan’s already laid and the contracts put out.”
“If they’re ready to pull the trigger, advocacy won’t make a difference,” Jacoby said.
But both recalled the force of community organizing against recent school closures—including the viral activism of Garvey Elementary student Asean Johnson. Klonsky and others referenced the hunger strike that led to the district’s reopening of the South Side’s Dyett High—very much, Klonsky said, against CPS’s wishes.
“Pat Dowell can be pretty good when she’s pushed,” he added. “But who’s pushing?”
Two more hearings are planned. NTA parents have been advocating alternatives—building a new high school building, or using funds to develop existing schools like Phillips and Bronzeville’s Dunbar. If they can push CPS to consider other options, they may be able to hold onto their school.
Whether or not NTA survives, it sits on a fault line. Rising South Loop land values and scarce city resources have driven more than three decades of racial and economic tension. Rising costs in the neighborhood play a part in a Chicago-wide, decades-long exodus of Black families.
“Not having a Level 1 high school is not a problem that’s unique [to the South Loop],” Latasha Watkins said. “It’s the case in most of the South Side.”
“They talk about underutilization, overutilization,” said Klonsky, “but it’s code language. At its heart, it’s a fight over who’s going to control this city.”
“I believe CPS would like for us to believe that this is a done deal,” Watkins adds. “So would Alderman Dowell. I do not feel like it’s a done deal. If our parents are organized enough and vocal enough about their opposition to this plan, CPS will have to listen. Our elected officials should be accountable.”
There’s a precedent for City Hall pushing through unpopular plans. But the history of community resistance is just as old—especially on the South Side. With powerful opposition, NTA will need its own leverage, and direct action, to keep other options on the table.
“I don’t think anything is ever really ‘done’ in Chicago politics,” said Watkins. “So I feel like my voice has meaning.”
Even an advocate of the closure agrees.
“When political pressure is brought to bear,” Jacoby said, “they find a way.”
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