A heated Chicago Board of Education meeting Wednesday ended with members approving plans to shutter four South Side high schools and one elementary school.
The vote capped months of protests against the closings, with many of the strongest opponents pleading with board members to spare their schools. This is the first round of official closings since the school district imposed a five-year closing moratorium after the historic closure of 50 under-enrolled schools in 2013.
Hundreds of students, parents and activists descended on Chicago Public Schools headquarters. Protesters who couldn’t be seated were held in the lobby where they staged an impromptu sit-in, chanting, “Save our Schools” and “When Public Education is Under Attack, What do we do? Stand up, Fight Back.”
A much smaller number of people came out to support the plans.
Three of the South Side Englewood high schools — Hope, TEAM Englewood and Harper — will be phased out over the next three years. The fourth, Robeson High School, will close this June. The four schools will be consolidated into one new school to open with freshmen in 2019.
National Teachers Academy, an elementary on the Near South Side, will be converted to a high school. It will start serving freshmen in 2019 but most current NTA students will be allowed to stay on until they are ready to enter the high school.
CPS officials said they moved to close the high schools because too few students attend and, since money in CPS is tied to enrollment, they are under-resourced.
NTA is being converted into a high school to serve the South Loop, Chinatown and parts of north Bronzeville. CPS officials argued the area lacked a neighborhood high school. Students are currently assigned to Phillips High School, which is on the southern edge of Bronzeville and is poorly rated.
NTA parents opposed to the change argued that while many parents wanted a new high school, few publicly supported this particular plan. CPS received more than 1,100 letters opposing the plan and less than 70 in support, they said, citing CPS records.
In an effort to break with past practices, CPS CEO Janice Jackson had insisted proposals like these be community driven. But at the board meeting, Jackson seemed to backpedal on that idea.
“The one thing I will say is that you don’t have to live in the community,” to help decide what happens there, Jackson said. “I don’t live in the community and we are making proposals and decisions about that.”
This comes after the Chicago Sun-Times reported last week that key supporters of the Englewood closure plans do not live in the community and at least one had a CPS contract.
Jackson also made the case that she has been responsive to community concerns. Earlier this month she agreed to phase out the three high schools rather than close them all in June.
“I have been in CPS for a long time, and I have not seen the level of flexibility that is present in the school actions that we are presenting today,” she said.
Also Wednesday, the board approved the merger of two elementary schools on opposite ends of the income divide. The two schools are located in the Gold Coast neighborhood, but Ogden mostly serves affluent majority white and Asian families, while Jenner serves mostly poor black students who live in subsidized housing in the shadow of the old Cabrini-Green public housing high rises. When this merger was originally proposed in 2015, it was highly controversial but it passed without much discussion on Wednesday.
Over time, some of the most opposed families have left Ogden and only one father came to the board meeting to ask for it to be delayed. The principal of Ogden, religious leaders and parents countered that this was a bold attempt at desegregating schools and could become a model around Chicago.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.