Gradual conversion of NTA would create new South Loop high school
July 9, 2017

By Patrick Butler

The Chicago Public Schools wants to make National Teachers Academy the South Loop community’s public high school. (Photo courtesy National Teachers Academy)

Just about everybody who packed the June 20 meeting at South Loop Elementary School, 1212 S. Plymouth Ct., agreed the area needs its’ own high school.

The controversial question was whether it needed to be at South Loop Elementary, the nearby National Teachers Academy (NTA) campus at 55 W. Cermak Rd., or somewhere else.

There were plenty of arguments for each option during the packed two-hour meeting attended by Aldermen Patrick Thompson (11th) and Pat Dowell (3rd). Ald. Danny Solis (25th) sent a representative.

The Chicago Public Schools favors a plan to turn NTA from a primary school into a high school and expand the boundaries of South Loop Elementary school to encompass NTA’s current area. NTA parents mostly are opposed.

“I look forward to hearing this conversation; please speak your minds,” Dowell urged the several hundred parents and students at the Chicago Public Schools’ second town meeting in the past month on the future of secondary education in the South Loop/Near South Side area.

“We’ve advocated for a neighborhood high school for some time,” said John Jacoby, vice president of the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance.

Jacoby alleged that NTA has been targeted to be turned into a new high school for at least seven years. He added that while he sympathizes with the parents and students at NTA, he believes the property can be better used as a neighborhood high school.

Opposed to shutting

NTA Hannah El-Amin disagreed, saying “instead of shutting down this school (NTA), you should be opening more like it.”

John Powers said, “This community needs a high school,” and urged his neighbors to “never give up” until they get one.

“When deciding whose needs to prioritize, it’s clear the CPS [Chicago Public Schools] is appeasing wealthy constituents at the expense of low-income residents that the mayor has continuously pushed out of their homes, their schools, and their city,” Elizabeth Greer, chair of NTA’s school council, wrote in an email.

In a shift from an earlier meeting when CPS said it wanted to shut down NTA and convert the building into a new high school, CPS District Chief Herold (Chip) Johnson said the transformation would be “gradual” as the CPS adjusts to the needs of a fast-changing neighborhood.

NTA is both a training school for teachers as well as a working grade school under CPS direction. It opened in 2002, and is run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a non-profit that manages 30 other CPS district schools. An estimated 80% of the students are black, and 80% come from low-income families. NTA currently has a enrollment of 687 students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade.

Students allowed to stay

During an opening briefing, Johnson said every student currently attending NTA would be allowed to stay until graduation regardless of whether he or she lives within the future high school’s “official” boundaries, which means cutting into NTA’s turf. Johnson said the school would not only serve the South Loop, but Bridgeport, Bronzeville, and Chinatown.

At the same time, a new South Loop Elementary School building will open to handle overcrowding at a new location, 1601 S. Dearborn St., Johnson said. The current school opened in 1988 at 1212 S. Plymouth Ct., with 588 students and now has an enrollment of 839.

The new South Loop school at 16th and Dearborn will accommodate 1,200 students with 50 classrooms, two computer labs, two art studios, and a rooftop play area, according to the CPS. One reason for eventually moving
the new high school into the NTA building is economics, as a new high school building would run about $100 million, CPS official said.

Asked about using the nearby Jones College Prep high school at 700 S. State St. instead of NTA, Johnson said that the elite Jones College Prep is already 95% full – and one of the most difficult schools in the city to get into.

“Demand for Jones is very high,” Johnson added. “increasing neighborhood seats there isn’t a feasible option.”

Converting NTA “was determined to be the most viable option to quickly bring high-quality neighborhood seats into the area while establishing a continuum of highquality option for families pre-K through 12th grade (high school),” the CPS said in a packet distributed to attendees at the June 20 meeting.

Johnson said that the South Loop needs a “neighborhood” high school. CPS studies show students from that neighborhood currently attend 127 different high schools around the city and that more than half those students travel at least three miles to get to the high schools of their choice.

Overall, Johnson added, only about 25% of Chicago’s high school students attend their neighborhood schools.