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Chicago school board moves ahead with plans for new high school, despite enrollment drops

The facade of Chicago Public Schools headquarters, with the district’s sign hanging on the wall behind windows with green silhouettes of students.

The Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday voted 4-3 to buy nearly two acres as part of a land swap agreement with the Chicago Housing Authority for the proposed site of a new high school

Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat

Chicago Public Schools’ plan for a $120 million high school on the Near South Side is closer to reality following a 4-3 vote, but a state representative vows to block state funding until the district and mayor take seriously the concerns of neighbors. 

The Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday narrowly approved the purchase of nearly two acres as part of a land swap agreement with the Chicago Housing Authority for the proposed site of the school at 2450 S. State Street. 

The school board will purchase the cluster of properties at 23rd and Wabash for $10.3 million using capital funds and Tax Increment Financing money to finance the deal. The board also passed a separate measure to spend an additional $5 million to plan the new high school. 

Board members will still need to approve funding for the construction of the high school at a later date.

The project has prompted concerns about the need for a new school as school enrollment continues to fall. Others have said the district hasn’t properly engaged with nearby residents and some have argued against building a school on land intended for public housing.

Ahead of the vote, State Rep. Teresa Mah (D-Chicago), who secured state funding for a new high school, urged members to vote no until the district had “good faith” community engagement around the proposal. 

“The way in which the mayor and CPS has been pushing forward with the current controversial and problematic proposal has been troubling,” Mah said. “There has not been meaningful community engagement with open public meetings and true dialogue.”

Mah said she had taken measures to withhold state funds until she could be assured of authentic engagement and good faith consideration of other sites. 

Ald. Pat Dowell, who represents the area, defended the high school saying it has long been in the works. The growing population in the South Loop and surrounding area justified the need to support young people in the area, Dowell said. 

She said she was disappointed that Mah was considering pulling funding, claiming the state representative wanted the school in her district. 

“We need to look beyond parochial politics,” Dowell said. 

The controversial project was set for a vote in June but was pulled from the board agenda over board members’ concerns around the lack of community engagement and questions about the need for a new high school in the face of continued enrollment drops. The vote comes with three newly appointed board members after one member critical of the proposed school was ousted in July.

During Wednesday’s board meeting, CPS and CHA officials said they carried out 30 “engagements” with 730 parents and community members including with nearby school LSCs

Officials said district enrollment was down overall, but argued the area was the fastest growing in the city. Currently, the Near South Side is home to 2,255 high school and 5,983 elementary school students, according to data presented to board members. 

CEO Pedro Martinez acknowledged overall enrollment declines, but argued there was a need citing growing population in the South Loop area. The district was also in a better financial position, he added.

“I see nothing but opportunity across the South and West corridor,” Martinez said. 

The project has been in the works for a while – but some board members once again raised concerns about community engagement and questioned the need for a new school especially as the district continues to hemorrhage students. During Wednesday’s board meeting, CPS noted that the district has lost roughly 9,000 students since last fall. The district has lost more than 80,000 students in the last decade.

Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who along with Vice President Sendhill Ruvuluri and Sulema Medrano Novak voted no, said the new high school would disrupt enrollment at nearby schools and further constrain funding to operate another school. 

Todd-Breland questioned why the high school proposal was being pushed to the front of the line when, she said, there is so much need across the  district.

The push for the new high school has also been met with resistance internally. Senior officials warned leaders the new high school could exacerbate enrollment declines of nearby schools and harm Black students, according to a memo obtained by WBEZ and Sun-Times.

The plan to build the new high school on the former Harold Ickes Homes has angered residents and housing advocates. The CHA promised housing for residents displaced after the public housing high-rise was torn down more than a decade ago.

During public comment, a number of speakers, including Chinatown groups and parents who have long advocated for the school, expressed frustration with the community engagement process and the location. 

Irene Robinson, parent and education organizer, expressed opposition to the new high school on housing authority land, saying the CHA needed to keep its promises to build affordable housing. 

“This is very disrespectful to us,” Robinson said

Angela Lin, of Peoples Matter, said the group had collected over 200 signatures from families in the area, calling on the district to select a different site. 

“We think that this proposal will divide the community even further,” Lin said.

Last spring, the district unveiled plans for the proposed high school as part of the broader capital budget. Officials budgeted $70 million for the project, and noted the state would kick in $50 million for the new campus. 

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 moving ahead with the plan after NTA parents filed a lawsuit.   

The price tag is still a concern for some board members. The last time the district built a new high school, it cost $85 million. That project – Englewood STEM High School – was initially expected to cost $75 million. It also led to the closure of four under-enrolled neighborhood high schools nearby.  

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

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