New Near South high school near done deal, residents push for Near West high school
February 2, 2018

By Susan S. Stevens

An open enrollment high school on the Near South Side won approval of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials, with community activists on the Near West Side pushing for a similar one.

The South Side school will be located in the National Teachers Academy (NTA) building at 55 W. Cermak Rd., which now serves as an elementary school with more than 700 pupils. The West Side school might occupy the Chicago Police Academy’s current location at 1300 W. Jackson Blvd. after the academy moves into a new facility.

CPS officials Jan. 8 released proposed enrollment boundaries for the NTA high school. CPS would guarantee admission for pupils living in the boundaries of Drake, Haines, Healy, South Loop Elementary, and James Ward grade schools. CPS also may include Armour, Holden, and Pershing Schools within the boundaries. CPS also will guarantee spots in the new high school for all NTA pupils, no matter where they live. Under the current plan, boundaries would be the lakefront on the east, the Chicago River on the north and west, and 35th Street on the south.

For the West Side high school, activists want to guarantee admission for all eighth grade graduates of Skinner West, Brown, Smyth, Andrew Jackson, STEM, Galileo, Irving, and Sudler Schools; guarantee admission to all students in the proposed attendance area, regardless of where they attend elementary school (including private, parochial, and charter schools); set boundaries at roughly Kinzie Street to 16th Street, from slightly east of the Dan Ryan Expressway to slightly west of Western Avenue; and make sure the school is not a charter or contract school.

CPS said it would confirm boundaries for the South Side school after receiving input from the community during public meetings and hearings in January. The West Side proposal has not advanced that far.

Dennis O’Neill and Armando Chacon, who proposed repurposing the police academy as a school, formed a committee of about 20 West Loop and Near West residents wanting to meet with CPS officials.

“We want to see what CPS is thinking,” O’Neill said.

“We are not set on one site,” Chacon said, although he said the police academy building would “do nicely.”

O’Neill and Chacon said the NTA high school is probably too far away to attract many students from their communities.

Ald. Patrick D. Thompson (11th) expressed pleasure about the NTA transformation, calling it “a step in the right direction for quality secondary education.” He wants a larger attendance boundary to include more communities, however.

“A quality neighborhood school near the South Loop would provide families with the peace of mind of knowing they have guaranteed access to a great high school near home—regardless of which schools they are selected to attend,” said Jennifer Rakstad, a South Loop School parent and member of the Near South Steering Committee.

Approval needed

Converting NTA to a high school still needs Board of Education approval. If it comes through, the conversion will phase in gradually over several years.

As far as a Near West high school goes, Chacon said at a community meeting attended by more than 100 people, “We feel the time is right.” Chacon is president of both the West Central Association and Mary Bartelme Park. He noted that, in 2013, officials held meetings to discuss a new high school and reached consensus among residents who wanted to know “How soon can we build it?” Chacon said. The discussions did not progress, however, lacking an available site.

“But now we have a viable site—the current police academy,” Chacon said. Police training will move to a new $95 million training facility 4301 W. Chicago Ave. in the Garfield Park community in about 2020; the fire academy will move there, too.

The current police academy sits adjacent to Whitney Young Magnet High School at 211 S. Laflin St., which ranks among the nation’s top schools but has admission standards too high for many nearby students to achieve.

“This community wants a high school and guaranteed access to it,” said O’Neill, executive director of Connecting4Communities, adding that the Jackson Boulevard site “option should be good,” but that “there are other options” as well.

Since the community meeting, O’Neill and Chacon have met with various educators to push for a new school. They welcome new committee members who have school age children or education expertise. Sign up via https://connecting4communities.org/about/.

Other options

As another option, officials could transform Spaulding School at 1628 W. Washington Blvd. into a high school, said May Toy, president of the Skinner Park Association. She added that Spaulding started as a high school but now serves special needs students; it can accommodate 1,700 students but currently serves only 400. Several meeting attendees voiced their agreement with Toy’s idea.

Community activists also have examined Montefiore at 1310 S. Ashland Ave. as an option, Toy said. The CPS, however, reached an agreement to sell the building to Urban Prairie Waldorf School, whose management plans on moving that school to the former Montefiore site after the close of this academic year.

O’Neill suggested turning Urban Prep, an elementary school at 1426 W. 14th Pl., into the high school it was built to be.

Whitney Young principal Joyce Kenner shared many concerns about two high schools being so close together, including athletic field use, increased traffic as parents drop off and pick up students, and how students would feel about attending the new school if they are unable to get into Whitney Young. Whatever occurs, “Let’s do it right,” she said, adding that she would be honored to help create a new high school, wherever it goes.

All eight elementary schools in the area “are good schools,” O’Neill noted, asserting that they are “better” than the area high school, Wells, on the community’s far northwest edge.

One person in the crowd of more than 120 said the area does not need a new school. “Do not write off Wells,” he said, noting officials could bring it up to a higher standard with community help to make it “a school that area students want to attend.”

For more on the Chicago Public Schools, log on to www.cps.edu.
For Connecting4Communities, log on to connecting4communities.org. For information about the West Central Association, log on to www.wcachicago.org. To contact Alderman Patrick D. Thompson, call (773) 254-6677.