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 proposed 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 still in the early stages, critics railed against the proposal for utilizing 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 complex without first seeking feedback from residents who live near there.
“I hope that with approval of this project, which will result in a high-quality neighborhood school serving a diverse 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 process, 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 engage 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 analysis show there’s not only a need for the school “but it won’t diminish the population of other nearby schools.”
Earlier this month, a 107-word paragraph 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 previously 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 summer 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 compelling option.
Things started to fall apart after Emanuel’s July 2018 announcement. He revealed two months later that he would not seek reelection. 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 boundary designated by CPS. He cited a $16.6 million expansion of Skinner West Elementary School in 2019 as a model.
“What has not changed is our determination to address this,” Chacon told the Tribune. “We’d like to hold 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, founder and board member of the Coalition For A Better Chinese American Community, urged swift 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 analysis phase.
Other community leaders have encouraged CPS officials to slow down and engage residents. Years ago the district proposed converting the National Teachers…
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