Does Chicago’s Near South Side need a new $120 million high school?

The Chicago Board of Education postponed a vote on Wednesday on a controversial proposal to build a new high school near Chinatown.

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Niketa Brar of Chicago United for Equity says a new high school building doesn’t address the reason that Near South Side residents aren’t sending their children to existing neighborhood schools. Rich Hein / Chicago Sun-Times
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Niketa Brar of Chicago United for Equity says a new high school building doesn’t address the reason that Near South Side residents aren’t sending their children to existing neighborhood schools. Rich Hein / Chicago Sun-Times

Does Chicago’s Near South Side need a new $120 million high school?

The Chicago Board of Education postponed a vote on Wednesday on a controversial proposal to build a new high school near Chinatown.

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A pivotal vote over building a new high school on the Near South Side was delayed Wednesday amid concerns about the $120 million investment’s impact on surrounding schools and a broader question.

Does Chicago even need this school?

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said he made the last minute decision to pull the proposal from the school district’s budget, which is up for approval on Wednesday, to be able to answers to more questions about the high school. However, he said he intends to bring the proposal back for consideration in the “near future.”

Until Tuesday, CPS had provided little information about the proposed new high school — not even such basic information as the location, attendance boundaries or the city’s analysis of the effects that the school would have on a school system whose enrollment has been shrinking.

Amid Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s reelection campaign, CPS had put the proposed new high school into its capital budget with little public engagement, no land secured at a proposed site and big questions about who would attend the school. If the proposal had failed Wednesday, it would been a blow to Lightfoot, who controls the school district and appoints the board.

As CPS officials ask the Board of Education to approve their $70 million share of the project on top of $50 million from the state, they have yet to make a case — beyond the clamoring from the area for a school — for whether Chinatown, the South Loop and Bridgeport’s needs justify spending so much of the school system’s resources on a new building amid plummeting enrollment citywide.

“It’s difficult to advocate for the needs of one community and balance the needs of surrounding communities,” said Grace Chan McKibben, an advocate for the new school and head of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community. “Because Chicago is so segregated, and life in Chicago is so highly regionalized.”

Though the school set to open in 2025 also would serve students from the South Loop and Bridgeport, among the most compelling arguments for the new school has been the burgeoning Chinatown community’s desire for an educational hub. Often described as the country’s only growing Chinatown, the community recently was drawn into Chicago’s first Asian American majority ward. Home to thousands of immigrant families, the neighborhood has at least doubled in population since 2000.

Chinatown’s students now attend dozens of different Chicago high schools. Much of the neighborhood is zoned for them to attend Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Bronzeville, a 2.6-mile drive south from the heart of Chinatown. Many choose Thomas Kelly College Prep in Brighton Park, a nearly four-mile drive. Kelly serves the area’s largest Asian American high school population.

“Something a lot closer, it’s easier to mobilize the neighborhood nonprofits and youth programs to really work well with helping serve those immigrant students,” said David Wu, executive director of the Pui Tak Center, a Chinatown community center.

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David Wu, executive director of the Pui Tak Center in Chinatown, supports a neighborhood high school that would serve Chinatown students Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

Parents have said they want Mandarin and Cantonese dual language programs, services for immigrant students and a culturally aware staff — which advocates say would be difficult to add to an existing school.

CPS officials also want to shorten commute times for the area’s Black students, who now are spread across 95 city schools, Pedro Martinez, the school system’s chief executive officer, said in an interview Tuesday. He estimated that 86% of kids in the new school’s boundaries would travel a shorter distance.

South Loop Elementary parent Anna Volerman Beaser said the area needs “programs that we know can challenge our children.” Otherwise, she said, “Families start looking at private schools or the suburbs.”

CPS says the Near South Side has grown over the past decade — adding 469 elementary-age kids, reaching a total this year of 5,983 — and projects a 15% increase in the number of high school students within five years.

But enrollment citywide has continued a long downturn during the COVID-19 pandemic, falling 7% from 2020 to 2022. Enrollment for the just-ended school year totaled 330,411. A decade ago, it topped 400,000.

Fewer students are entering CPS. This year, 21,405 kindergartners were enrolled, compared to 29,594 a decade ago. And each cohort of kids has been shrinking year over year, with the class that just finished fifth grade down 2,088 students since they were third-graders.

CPS says there are 2,255 high school students in the new school’s proposed boundary — which goes from the Loop south to 31st Street and the lakefront west to Damen Avenue minus a slice of Little Village. The initial proposal calls for a 1,200-student school.

CPS says 42% of the students living within the boundaries of the proposed high school now attend competitive selective enrollment schools. Would those families give up those coveted spots?

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Earlean Braggs lives in the CHA Dearborn Homes and has four children in elementary schools near where the new high school would be built. She has concerns about the proposed new high school. Brian Rich / Chicago Sun-Times

Earlean Braggs’s four children attend Drake Elementary nearby. With plenty of choices for high school, Braggs said she worries that a new school could drain Phillips, Tilden High School in Canaryville and other area majority-Black schools — which CPS says already are under capacity. She worried because funding follows students.

“Where are they going to get the children for the new high school?” she said. “And where are they going to get the teachers? Because there are some schools that have a shortage of teachers from the pandemic.”

At a public hearing last week, Board of Education member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said she sees no need to add capacity with enrollment in Chicago on the decline.

“It is hard for me to hear that this plan is about serving Black students,” Todd-Breland said. “We’re not currently serving Black students adequately in the schools in the area with declining enrollment that surround this site. And that will continue and only be exacerbated by this.”

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A vacant lot at West 24th Street and South State Street in the South Loop — part of the former Harold L. Ickes Homes — is the proposed site for a new CPS high school. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

CPS is proposing the new high school at 24th and State streets on a vacant lot once part of the Harold Ickes Homes, which the Chicago Housing Authority began shutting down in 2007 amid promises of new public housing.

Braggs said she thinks newer South Loop residents who are white won’t send their kids to school with hers and others who live nearby in the low-rise, government-subsidized Dearborn Homes.

“I think they are trying to build anything but low-income subsidized housing,” Braggs said of the city. “And, honestly, they are trying to push us Blacks out of the neighborhood.”

Roderick Wilson, executive director of the community organization Lugenia Burns Hope Center, said it’s “not acceptable” for a new school to replace promised housing.

“We used to live on State Street when there was no investment,” Wilson said. “Now, you want to start investing in it. … We can’t be the beneficiary of an investment.”

Wilson said officials should have been meeting with community members for months rather than just at a meeting last week.

Chinatown advocates haven’t shown strong support for the 24th and State site because of the housing that was promised there. Chan McKibben said many want CPS to find ways to minimize any harm.

Acknowledging the sensitivity of the selected site, Martinez said the school system still needs to buy land to swap with the CTA, potentially at 23rd Street and Wabash Avenue, where the city could build housing.

CPS’s vision for the Near South high school calls for a racially diverse enrollment with sizable populations of Asian, Black, Latino and white students.

But some community advocates point to previous examples of schools’ demographics playing out differently than anticipated. Of the CPS elementary schools that expanded through 12th grade since 2000 — citing similar pressure for a neighborhood high school — only Spry Community Links in Little Village’s population stayed the same from K-8 to 9-12.

At Alcott College Prep in Lincoln Park, more than half of the elementary students are white, and 14% are Asian, figures that drop in high school to 13% white and fewer than 2% Asian. The Black and Latino student populations jump in high school to 83% from 19%.

Expanding Ogden International School in West Town led to a similar mismatch, as white and Asian American families chose to go elsewhere after eighth grade while Black and Latino families opted in.

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CPS CEO Pedro Martinez says a proposed $120 million high school on the Near South Side will shorten commutes for Black and Asian students who live nearby but leave their neighborhoods for school. Anthony Vazquez / Chicago Sun-Times

Martinez said the new high school is aimed at Asian and Black students who don’t get into selective enrollment schools. He said he would like to see white families in the South Loop attend the school, too, but isn’t counting on that.

Niketa Brar, head of the group Chicago United for Equity, said a new building doesn’t address the reason people who live in the areas aren’t sending their children to neighborhood schools. Families are looking for strong, well-resourced schools, Brar said, but many white and Asian American families in the area don’t choose schools that serve mostly low-income Black students.

“You have put a shiny, beautiful Band-Aid on something that is a deep and gaping hole,” Brar said.

Nader Issa and Lauren FitzPatrick are Chicago Sun-Times reporters.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.