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Chicago delays plan for new Near South Side high school amid mounting concerns

A man wearing a mask and knit cap walks past the Chicago Public Schools headquarters.

The Board of Education was set to vote on the high school as part of the district’s $9.5 billion budget but CEO Pedro Martinez postponed the vote to answer questions from communities.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Amid mounting concerns, Chicago Public Schools is postponing plans to build a new $120 million high school on the Near South Side to give district officials time to resolve community questions.

The unexpected delay comes after years of pressure from leaders in Chinatown and some surrounding communities, who want the school district to build a new high school for students in the area because they say current options are too far away and low-performing. 

The proposed project unveiled earlier this month would construct a high school on Chicago Housing Authority land where the Harold Ickes Homes once stood near 24th and State streets. 

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez made the unexpected announcement early during Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting where members were set to vote on the proposed high school as part of its $9.5 billion budget for the upcoming school year. The district had budgeted $70 million for the high school, and is expected to get $50 million from the state.

Martinez said the high school would be removed from the budget for now so district officials could do its “due diligence” to answer questions from the community.

“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 CHA,” Martinez said. 

The project faced criticism from board members and community members who said the community was left out of the planning process and raised concerns about enrollment losses at nearby schools.  

District officials last week acknowledged that while CPS was seeing declining enrollment overall, neighborhoods like the Near South Side were seeing growth. They said enrollment impacts to nearby high schools, such as Benito Juarez Academy and Kelly High School would be minimal.  

But member Elizabeth Todd-Breland pushed back saying, “every decision that we make around one school in this district impacts other schools.” 

The idea of a high school for the Near South Side  has been floated around for years. A previous plan would have converted National Teachers Academy – which is a block away from the proposed site – from an elementary school to a high school. But in 2018, a judge stopped the school district from doing so after NTA parents filed a lawsuit.   Board members have urged the district to do community outreach early but that had not been done, Todd-Breland said.

“It feels disrespectful to us as board members that that feedback is never acted upon,” Todd-Breland said, “If we feel disrespected as board members, how does the community feel?”

Board President Miguel del Valle acknowledged the concerns of other members including issues around engagement but said the district “can’t walk away” from $50 million from the state.

“When I hear about an opportunity for a new building for a modern facility, I have to jump at the opportunity,” del Valle said.

During Wednesday’s board meeting, Sendhil Revuluri echoed fellow board members saying he wasn’t sure why a new school was on the table, especially in the face of persistent enrollment declines. After building a school, the district would need to think about the budget to operate a new school in the face of already constrained budgets, Revuluri said. 

The district would need to confront the reality of enrollment, decades of racism, and a CPS budget that is inadequate by the state’s calculations, he added. 

For years, the Chinatown neighborhood has been advocating for a new high school in the area to serve the community and nearby neighborhoods, such as Bridgeport and South Loop.

During public comment at Wednesday’s meeting, community members from Chinatown and Bridgeport lobbied in support for the high school. They included Chris Kanich, a community member who urged the board to move forward with the vote. 

The delay comes as two board members – Luisiana Melendez and Lucino Sotelo – step down from the board. Two board members will be appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Following the announcement, Todd-Breland asked Martinez what had changed in the last few days. Martinez said the district needed more time to address questions from the community.

“I don’t want to bring in an item with such complexity to the board unless I’m answering key questions in the community,” Martinez said. “I still saw a lot of questions coming in today.”

“We are trying to address a need, and frankly, we need to make sure the community sees it that way,” Martinez added.

The proposed high school will return before the board in the “near future,” Martinez said.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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