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Plans For New South Loop High School Raise Issues Of Class And Race

A controversial proposal to give the booming South Loop its own high school is bringing issues of race and class to the forefront.

Tuesday night is the first of three community hearings this month on the plan.

Chicago Public Schools proposes converting National Teachers Academy, an elementary school at the southern end of the South Loop, into a high school. This move satisfies the desires of new, wealthier residents in the area who want a high school. But parents of students at NTA, who are mostly black and low-income, don’t want to lose their school and say they are being ignored.

CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson defends this plan, saying it was devised to create more integrated schools and not to exclude the area’s longtime, mostly black, low-income residents. The plan includes moving NTA students to South Loop elementary, which is getting a new building.

“You see a community that welcomes diversity, that has welcomed the idea of merging the two schools [NTA and South Loop], despite some of the socioeconomic and racial differences that exist,” Jackson told WBEZ. “So I think that they are actually a model community for that kind of diversity.”

The plan is predicated on draining students from NTA — a high-performing majority black elementary school at 55 W. Cermak Road — so it can be converted into a high school intended for a diverse population.

Most of the students in the current National Teachers Academy attendance boundary would go to school at South Loop Elementary School, which is getting a new building near 16th and Dearborn to relieve overcrowding. 

The end result, Jackson said, will be that both South Loop elementary and the high school at NTA will be racially and economically diverse. She credits the South Loop community for being open to this. 

But National Teachers Academy parents strongly oppose the school reconfiguration plan. They say the integration proposed appeases new white residents of the area at the expense of longtime black residents.

NTA mom Audrey Johnson said the school has welcomed South Loop parents at their school, hoping they would consider it for their grammar school children. In addition, NTA has been open to extending its attendance boundary further north into the South Loop, a move that would make NTA more diverse. 

But NTA parents say South Loop parents have shunned their school, with many saying the performance is not up to par. Over the years, parents and staff have worked to improve the school and it is now highly rated, on its way to being top rated by CPS.

“Now you want to come and take it away from us,” Johnson said.

Johnson used to live in the public housing complex just to the South of NTA, but it has since been torn down. She says that when the school opened in 2002, many public housing residents suspected it was not for them but rather to spark gentrification.

Adding to the suspicion are NTA’s amenities. It was built as an elementary school but it features high school level amenities, including a swimming pool and a recently added outdoor full-size athletic field.

Sarah Karp reports on education for WBEZ. Follow her at @sskedreporter and @WBEZeducation.

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