City and schools officials have publicly promised their plan to build a new $120 million public high school on Chicago’s Near South Side won’t cause significant harm to nearby historically Black schools that fear they’ll lose students and funding.
But that rosy outlook repeatedly touted by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, schools chief Pedro Martinez and other city leaders is vastly different than what a foreboding district analysis showed last year.
The Sun-Times and WBEZ have learned a team of senior officials at Chicago Public Schools privately warned leaders that the project could undermine those schools and ultimately hurt Black students.
They wrote in a confidential memo that their preliminary analysis showed a new school would “accelerate the enrollment declines in several nearby schools, causing the schools to be constrained financially and academically in providing an equitable learning experience to all students.”
It went on to say that because many Black students go to under-enrolled schools even small “reductions in total enrollment as a result of the new proposed high school will result in negative outcomes for schools where Black students are currently enrolled.”
The officials’ initial assessment of an old boundary that has since been narrowed showed 18 schools would face negative repercussions in some way — and 16 of them serve majority Black students. They recommended a full racial equity impact analysis before the plans progressed. That never happened.
CPS has said publicly that some existing schools might lose students, but forecasted the losses would be small. The new boundary still includes parts of the attendance boundaries of the South Side schools the memo predicted would be negatively impacted.
These Near South Side public high schools have already gone through endless transformation over the past century, some of them once nearly all Black, booming educational hubs often overcrowded with students. Then came years of disinvestment and underfunding as declining birth rates, the growth of charter schools and the exodus from Chicago by Black residents gutted Black schools. CPS’ enrollment has plummeted by 82,000 children over the past decade.
Despite assurances from the district, many families, educators and alumni fear their next chapter — competition with a shiny new school showered with resources — may mean they’ll soon be drained with no return.
The new boundaries for the proposed 1,200-student neighborhood school at 24th and State streets capture Chinatown, South Loop, Bridgeport, Douglas and parts of the Near West Side — which include some affluent areas with significant white and Asian populations. Residents in these areas have long complained they don’t have a viable neighborhood high school to send their children to, largely rejecting mostly Black high schools their kids could attend.
Shimaya Hudson-Puller, a parent and the local school council chairperson at Wendell Phillips Academy, said she wants to work on the Bronzeville neighborhood school, which is about two miles south of the proposed new school. The new school’s boundaries include about half of Phillips’s current boundary.
“I hope that a lot of parents don’t sway away to the South Loop school. It may sound good, but the grass isn’t always greener on the other side,” she said. “I want [the] opportunity that they give to other schools and new schools.”
Some say the school shouldn’t be built until the district leads a difficult discussion about the intrinsic race and class issues. Others are conceding the high school will be built and are demanding the district pour money into their buildings to give them a fighting chance.
Housing advocates and residents are angry at the plan to build the school on former public housing land. And financial experts don’t understand how it’s possible to spend $120 million — $70 million from CPS and $50 million from the state — on a new building in a district losing thousands of kids a year, with under-enrolled schools in the area and a financial cliff quickly approaching.
But the city is charging ahead, doubling down on each facet of its plan as Lightfoot ramps up her re-election campaign.
CPS insists the school will help Black students in the area, as well as Asian students, cutting their commute times significantly while perhaps drawing thousands of children who live in the area but don’t attend nearby schools. Most students in Chicago don’t attend their neighborhood high school, but the rates on the Near South Side are well below average. Many new immigrants living in Chinatown choose to attend Kelly College Prep, more than four miles away, rather than the majority Black schools nearby.
Officials also say they anticipate the high school population on the Near South Side to increase in the years ahead, and two local alderpeople wrote an op-ed on Monday saying their communities want the school. The Chicago Housing Authority says it intends to build the public housing units promised for the community but in a denser area nearby.
The school district touts the proposed school as a “first-of-its-kind development” co-located with CHA housing, and “diverse by design.” The school, it wrote in a description of the plan, “can serve as a model for how diverse districts in cities with varying needs can thoughtfully develop a plan for a new school.”
“We remain committed,” CPS added in a statement, “to ensuring that members of these communities continue to collaborate with us through our design and development process as this school is intended to serve the needs of the growing student population of these communities.”
The school board is set to vote Wednesday on moving forward with planning and designing the proposed school, and purchasing nearby land to transfer to the CHA in exchange for a lease at 24th and State streets.
Schools decline but remain proud
Wendell Phillips Academy is considered the first Black high school in Chicago. As families settled in the historic Black Belt on the South Side during the Great Migration, their children attended Phillips. Notable alumni include John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony magazine, and singers Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington.
Dunbar Career Academy, on King Drive just over a mile south from the proposed school, was founded so Black students could learn trades and support their families. Teens could learn all facets of building a house, from brick laying to electricity and carpentry. Students ran a dry cleaner and learned how to tailor and make dresses. And they could learn how to fix cars and airplanes.
“It was the bomb,” said Shari Nichols-Sweat, who attended Dunbar in the 1970s and taught there for more than 30 years.
But the two schools started losing population in the 2000s. First, the city tore down huge public housing developments. Then, Black professionals started moving back into Bronzeville, some without children, and others who didn’t choose these schools. The South Loop also became trendy as industrial buildings were converted into lofts and new townhomes went up.
Thousands of low-income Black families have since left the area, pushed out by the dwindling resources and shifting demographics. And among the ones still there, only 8% enrolled in Phillips last year. At another Near South Side school, Tilden Career Community Academy, only about 6% of high school students in the boundary enroll in the school, according to CPS. Dunbar accepts students from anywhere in the city.
The proposed boundary of the new school includes parts of the current boundaries of Phillips, Tilden and Wells High School, which is in West Town.
Fifteen years ago, Phillips, Dunbar and Tilden together had 3,700 students. This year, they are collectively serving one-third that number. Tilden is the smallest, with only 215 kids enrolled this year, though the population increased slightly since last year.
They’re now severely under-enrolled: Last year, Tilden was at 9% capacity, Dunbar at 26% and Phillips 32%, according to district data. All three also serve many students who arrive at high school behind academically and graduate students at rates below the city average.
“They let neighborhoods get run down and then they come in with this high-priced real estate and people can’t afford to stay there,” Nichols-Sweat said.
At the same time, CPS was opening new schools, including privately run charters. In the area around Dunbar and Phillips, six high schools have opened since 1999.
Tilden, another mile southwest of Phillips, long served a majority Black student population. It lost kids due to the proliferation of charter schools and dated perceptions of the school as unsafe that have been hard to shake — an issue for many of the area’s majority Black schools. But when CPS opened the new Englewood STEM High School in 2019, Black students flocked there and Tilden is now roughly half Hispanic and half Black.
Because school budgets in Chicago are tied to enrollment, these schools have seen their funding decrease year over year. The school district spent a combined $10.6 million, down 34%, less on Dunbar, Phillips and Tilden last year compared to a decade ago. While these schools have seen their populations dwindle, salary and other costs also have increased.
With less money, these schools have had to cut programs, making them less attractive to students. The three schools are also in old buildings that need repairs to outdated cafeterias and gymnasiums with cracked walls and falling paint chips.
Even so, parents and alumni want outsiders to understand that good things are already happening in the schools and more could be done to improve them.
Hudson-Puller, the Phillips mom and LSC chairperson, is proud of the school. Her older son played football and graduated last year, departing for Northern Illinois University. In 2015 and 2017, the football team won the state championship.
This year Phillips has a new principal, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony took place this month for a new gym annex — a nod to the powerhouse sports.
“My experience there personally has been good because I have great relationships with the teachers,” said Hudson-Puller. Her younger son is a junior at Phillips. “I’m totally fine with keeping my son there.”
Alarm inside CPS about proposed new school
It is not only parents and alumni who are sounding alarms about the impact of the new school.
Last fall, senior CPS officials including Ushma Shah, now the superintendent in Oak Park, and planning and data manager Iliana Vargas, wrote a memo to interim CPS CEO José Torres expressing deep concerns about the Near South high school plans. Maurice Swinney, effectively the district’s second-ranking official at the time, was copied on the memo. He was the district’s first chief equity officer.
Officials called for district staff to conduct a racial equity impact assessment before CPS proceeded with planning a new school. Based on attendance boundaries that have since been adjusted slightly, they predicted schools in the surrounding area would fall into three categories: Negatively impacted (18 schools), relief from overcrowding (3 schools) or neutral impact (19 schools). And for those hurt by the proposal, a new school would “exacerbate existing enrollment challenges.”
Both Swinney and Shah have since left CPS and the assessment has not been done. Swinney wouldn’t comment on the plan and Shah didn’t return phone calls.
Martinez, the CPS CEO, has insisted a new school would in fact help both Black and Asian students alike, from lowering commute times to introducing additional educational opportunities. The district says 86% of students in the new boundary would have shorter travel times if they enroll in the new school. CPS has also said it could draw in new students who don’t currently attend any of the schools in the area.
Thousands of students on the Near South Side are choosing other options like selective enrollment schools, charters, other neighborhood or magnet programs or private schools. Last year, about 9,443 high school students lived in the attendance boundaries of Phillips, Tilden and Kelly (Dunbar doesn’t have a boundary as a citywide school). Only about 16% go to the three schools with attendance boundaries.
CPS also forecasts a population increase for high school students in the area based on elementary school gains over the last decade. Preliminary data shows modest increases for the area’s younger grades this year.
CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the district will consider the recommendation for a racial equity impact analysis. But she said CPS is already taking into account the voices of students, families and community members and has hosted dozens of public meetings. She said their input “is vital to the success of this proposed school.”
Fergus also said the district took feedback into account and adjusted the proposed attendance boundary to minimize those adverse effects. The portion included of Wells High School’s boundary was significantly cut back.
The principals at Phillips, Dunbar and Tilden have met with CPS officials to share concerns, as have public housing residents angry with the plan to build on the former Harold Ickes Homes public housing site. Advocates have hosted several protests against the plan.
Some have wondered whether Dunbar could be reimagined as a neighborhood school rather than a citywide option — the building can fit another 1,400 kids. But the school’s most stalwart advocates want to ensure its focus remains on giving opportunities to Black students, as it was intended to do.
Many others see a solution at Jones College Prep, whose new building opened in the South Loop in 2013. It’s a top selective enrollment option that many in the community want converted to a neighborhood school. But CPS and some at Jones are very reluctant.
The Chinatown push for a new high school
The strongest advocates for the new school, set to open in 2025, have been Chinatown residents — and some there have been fighting for two decades.
The Chinatown community has doubled in population since 2000 and recently gained newfound political power. Parents have said they want a school closer to home that serves their cultural needs — Mandarin and Cantonese dual language programs, services for immigrant students and a culturally aware staff.
The closest non-charter, district-run schools to the proposed site are between 1.1 miles and 5 miles away. Kelly College Prep, a 5-mile bus ride down Archer Avenue in Brighton Park, has been the school of choice for many area Asian students.
It serves around 200 Chinese-speaking students, CPS’ largest concentration. Kelly now has a Chinese bilingual program. Though Kelly was once significantly overcrowded, it is now considered slightly over capacity with its current enrollment of 1,750.
There’s little doubt the new proposed school would draw Chinese speakers away.
“For the ESL students who only speak one or two Chinese languages who aren’t really fluent in English, I think having a school that would definitely have more opportunities and programs dedicated for them specifically would really help,” said Lena Wu, a junior at Kelly who takes the Archer Avenue bus from Armour Square.
She likely would have chosen a school closer to home had it existed, though she loves how Kelly opened her eyes to new cultures. Wu takes marching band, film and Mandarin language classes. Kelly is majority Latino.
State Rep. Theresa Mah, a Chicago Democrat, procured the $50 million in capital funding from the state for her constituents, but she’s also a long-serving member of Kelly’s Local School Council who’s watched the enrollment among Asian Americans go up.
“I think there’s enough of a need for a school closer to Chinatown to serve all the students in the area,” Mah said. She said Kelly has addressed some of the need, especially for new immigrants, but not all Chinese speakers are accepted into Kelly because some live outside the attendance area.
“My hope is that [Kelly’s] enrollment won’t be that much affected,” she said, pointing to a study that showed one-third of Asian American students in the area choose nearby schools, while another third go to selective enrollment and the rest travel far for other options.
A racial divide
Many in the surrounding Black communities think there’s a reason Kelly became the school of choice for Chinatown families. Sarah Rothschild, a Chicago Teachers Union researcher who lives near Tilden in the South Side Canaryville neighborhood and serves on its local school council, said race has long played a role.
Of the schools in the area, Kelly is the only majority Hispanic one, with Asian students making up 11.5%. At Phillips, 88% of students identify as Black, as do 96% of Dunbar students. Tilden, long a majority Black school, is now about half Hispanic and half Black.
“It’s always been a racial divide. That’s very historical, it’s going back decades,” Rothschild said. “And there is reality to it. People have been testifying about what it’s like to be the only Asian kid in a school and how scary it is. They are worried for their safety. But that is something CPS should be dealing with.”
Chinatown advocates have cringed at the longstanding explanation that Asian American families don’t want to send their kids to majority Black schools.
They’ve urged CPS not to divide the two communities by taking from one to give to another. Advocates have most recently stood with Black public housing residents to push back against the 24th and State location on former housing land. And they’ve called for investment in Black schools as part of the deal for a new building.
The first things that often go when students leave and budgets shrink are a school’s special programs, such as bilingual classes and activities — and it’s those bells and whistles that draw families.
Mah said she has committed to people worried about the existing schools that she will address the funding formula with CPS leaders, but those conversations haven’t happened yet.
“I don’t think it should be a zero-sum game,” Mah said. “I think there can be investments in those programs that are needed and are being utilized and increasing. Making a bigger pie is the aim here.”
Parents and alumni from Phillips and Dunbar aren’t convinced. They worry the money poured into a new Near South high school would siphon off resources. It won’t just take the $120 million to build it — money will be dedicated every year moving forward to fund its operations.
“We don’t want [CPS officials] to say, ‘Well, you know, the school doesn’t have that much attendance, we’re gonna close this down,’ ” said Marilyn Pye Sanders, a 1968 Phillips and active alumna. “We got to fight that.”
Nader Issa and Lauren FitzPatrick are reporters for the Chicago Sun-Times. Sarah Karp and Natalie Y. Moore report for WBEZ.