Inside a South Side grammar school Wednesday night, Chicago Public Schools officials outlined their proposal to shutter four under-enrolled neighborhood high schools in Englewood and build a $75 million new one.
It did not go down easily. Two local aldermen, Toni Foulkes (16th ward) and Raymond Lopez (15th ward), rejected the closure plan, as did many residents and alumni of the four schools. A community organization tasked with making recommendations on local schools voted in favor of the new high school earlier this year. CPS hopes to open it in 2019.
“I’m for a new school, but I’m not for them closing Harper, Hope, Robeson, and [TEAM] Englewood,” said Darryl Smith, referring to the four schools slated to close. Smith, a Harper alumni, asked why the school system would shutter more schools in one of the city’s most violent areas. “The blood of those children will be on [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel’s hands since he’s using this as a re-election ploy,” he charged.
The proposal was officially announced in early June but it’s been in the works for over a year. WBEZ last summer obtained an internal memo that listed a new Englewood high school among dozens of projects. In December, the station confirmed the district was also planning to shutter several under-enrolled schools in the South Side community.
The four high schools targeted for closure collectively enroll just 614 students. That’s compared to more than 2,500 students at the schools in 2010. CPS says most high school age students leave the neighborhood for high school.
Lopez and Foulkes both said they want a new high school but not the closures. Lopez said the district first needs to rethink the school choice policies that have lured Englewood students to schools in other neighborhoods, leaving their community schools severely underenrolled.
“We’re going to spend all this money and allow all the same types of policies to exist that have led to the deterioration of the academic standard and quality of all of greater Englewood?” Lopez asked. “That is ridiculous.”
His ward includes Harper, which is the farthest from the proposed location of the new high school. He said he’s working with residents on an alternative proposal to present to the school district soon.
Harper was the subject of a two-part 2013 documentary from This American Life and WBEZ. The episodes chronicled how the school struggled with staggering neighborhood gun violence. In the 2011-2012 school year, 27 current or former Harper students were shot. Eight of them died.
Liz Kirby, the school district official leading Wednesday’s meeting, said there are plenty of people in Englewood who want the new high school, including many people who turned out Wednesday. At the session, CPS officials ran through safety plans, how construction would work, and even discussed how the community might select a name for the new school.
Englewood’s Community Action Council, which is made up of residents and stakeholders who advise on plans for neighborhood schools, voted earlier this year to request a new high school.
“There are some people who don’t want the school. There are some people who do,” Kirby said. “That’s part of the process But I do want to say, we would not have done this if the Community Action Council did not make this request.”
A CPS spokeswoman says there will be more meetings with the community. The next session is August 16. An official decision on the closings will be made early next year.
Becky Vevea covers education for WBEZ. You can follow her at @WBEZeducation.