South Loop educators and residents react to proposed South Loop High boundaries
December 7, 2018

Demonstrators earlier this year protesting the closing of National Teachers Academy, which will become South Loop High School.

Editor’s note: After this article went to press, Cook County Judge Franklin U. Valderrama issued an order to block the Chicago Public Schools’ conversion of National Teachers Academy into a high school. The CPS said it would not appeal the ruling, and NTA will remain an elementary school and will not become a high school.

By Eva Hofmann

The Chicago Board of Education recently approved proposed boundaries for the new South Loop High School, to be located at the current National Teachers Academy (NTA) building at 55 W. Cermak Rd. Boundaries will cover residents whose neighborhoods hold South Loop Elementary, Haines, Drake, Pershing, Ward, Healy, Holden, and Armour Elementary Schools as well as NTA.

In the meantime, as NTA prepares to close and make way for the new 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year, the project remains a divisive issue among communities in the South Loop and Near South Side.

NTA operates as both a training school for teachers and a working grade school under the direction of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). It currently enrolls 687 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. An estimated 80% of students are Black, and 80% come from low-income families.

NTA supporters say pressure from rich white and Chinese families led to officials closing the district’s Level 1+ rated program, the Chicago Public Schools’ highest rating. 

“This is a well loved, very active, parent involved, and highly rated school that serves a diverse population of students,” said Sarah Rothschild, education policy analyst, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). According to Rothschild, many NTA students already have experienced school closings in the past and should not be subjected to them again.

“The area does not need a new high school,” she added. “If all of these families who want a new high school simply sent their children to Phillips, Dunbar, or Tilden, the increase in enrollment—and revenue—to those schools would bring in much needed supports to expand programming and strengthen those school communities,” she added.

CPS officials have said they close a school only when they can guarantee its students a higher quality school in which to enroll. They also typically close schools only for poor academic performance or low enrollment. Officials told NTA families this when they assigned them to South Loop Elementary School (SLES).

Recently released school ratings showed the SLES rating dipped to Level 1, which still indicated good quality but is now lower than NTA’s Level 1+ rating.  CPS officials could not be reached for comment.

Lawsuit filed

NTA parents and supporters filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County in June contending the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

According to David Wu, chair of the Coalition for a Better Chinese-American Community (CBCAC) Education Committee, CPS based closing NTA on the lack of funds and SLES’s stronger performance as a school.

Wu said that, until recently, SLES was considered a better school than NTA, with stronger test scores and equal or higher ratings. Newly released school report cards from both CPS and the Illinois State Board of Education, however, rate NTA higher than SLES. “The judge will have to consider this in making a judgment,” said Wu.

Families who filed suit asked Judge Franklin U. Valderrama to note this “newly available, relevant evidence in support of their claim that the school action at issue violates the requirement that displaced students have the opportunity to attend a higher performing school,” according to the recently filed motion.

At this writing, the lawsuit has seen no resolution. Those involved expect the judge to rule on the motion in December.

Chinatown and South Loop residents have lobbied for an open enrollment high school for years, contending that the district is running out of places to put one.

CTU’s Rothschild argues that, in closing NTA, more families will become frustrated with the second-class treatment of their children and leave CPS, as has happened every year since 2013. “The affected students from both schools will suffer from the merger with South Loop Elementary because CPS never does this right—and people and resources always get lost in the shuffle,” she said. 

“NTA students might not feel welcomed by their South Loop peers.  NTA students likely will feel this is happening to them only because they are Black and low-income, while South Loop students are predominantly white and affluent—and they will be correct,” Rothschild said. 

Based on evidence from past school actions, said Rothschild, some students will leave the district, and many will end up attending other, less-resourced schools than SLES. “Some of the South Loop ES students may leave, too, especially if that school is overcrowded, which it is expected to be,” she said.

Courtesy Chicago Public Schools
Students in neighborhoods outlined in blue would attend South Loop High School, while students in neighborhoods outlined in red may attend but would not be guaranteed places.

Boundary lines

The most consistent critique of the boundary line is that it would determine who gets guaranteed access and who does not. “Attendance boundaries have been used to keep certain students out and certain students in for decades, especially to protect property values and maintain de facto school segregation, and this will only add to the disparity,” said Rothschild.

She said the boundary changes will further the decline of student enrollment at area high schools such as Phillips and Tilden, which CPS will then use as justification for further disinvestment and school closures. 

“All of the communities and families of every income in the entire region have a right to fully funded schools that meet the educational needs of their children,” she said. “This boundary plan essentially undermines those values.”

The Gap, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st Street on the north, 35th Street on the south, King Drive to the east, and LaSalle Street to the west, is located just outside the proposed boundary. Gap residents said they have been waiting decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Representatives of the Gap Community Organization could not be reached for comment.

Annex sought

Even as the Chicago Board of Education voted to expand South Loop High School’s enrollment boundaries, the school’s supporters are asking for an annex to prevent overcrowding. 

“While four alderman—Dowell, King, Solis, and Thompson—have agreed to raise money for an annex, it seems like we will have to wait until after the municipal election before real commitments can be made,” said Wu.

“We expect that this school will quickly become the school of choice for students who don’t get a seat at a selective enrollment school,” Wu added. “With the expected popularity of the school due to lack of a neighborhood high
school in the South Loop, Armour Square, and Bridgeport, an annex is really needed even before the school opens.”

CTU’s Rothschild said, “An annex would only be needed because of the ridiculous overreach of this extensive attendance boundary remap, not because there are that many students in the area. So many of the district’s 600 school buildings are in need of serious capital repair, and CPS should not waste additional tax money on an unnecessary annex, which will likely cost $30 to $50 million.”

What does Rothschild suggest to address students’ and families’ educational concerns? “Invest in Phillips, Dunbar, and Tilden high schools,” she said. “Help those schools attract families by providing the programming that students and parents are looking for, and provide the students at those schools with the resources they need to succeed. 

“If CPS had only done this all along, we wouldn’t be in this situation right now, where families in the South Loop, Chinatown, the Gap, and Bridgeport are calling these high schools ‘unviable options’ for their children,” Rothschild said.

For the CPS, log on to https://cps.edu. For the CTU, log on to https://ctulocal1.org. For CBCAC, log on to cbcacchicago.org.