Two months after immigrating from China this spring, 17-year-old Jinghao Ou and his mother spent a long, frustrating day trying to find and then registering at Jinghao’s new Chicago public high school, which is six miles from their new home in Chinatown on the near South Side. Neither speaks English well. Neither knows their way around the city.
“It is very far from this high school to Chinatown,” Jinghao said through a translator about the new school he will start in the fall, Kelly High. “I feel disappointed and depression even [though] school has not started. … I really want to have a high school in the Chinatown.”
For decades, neighborhood kids like Jinghao have left Chinatown to find a school, much to the chagrin of Chinatown community leaders. They have long pushed for a neighborhood public high school in or near their community but have always come up short — until now. They are close to getting a high school, but it has thrust them into an unwanted battle. If they win, a neighboring, mostly African-American community loses.
Mostly black elementary school to lose building to make way for new high school
The school district wants to convert a thriving African-American elementary school near Chinatown, National Teachers Academy, into a neighborhood high school to serve the increasingly white and affluent South Loop, as well as parts of Chinatown, Bridgeport and the mostly black Bronzeville neighborhood. Chicago Public Schools officials have said this could create a rarity in Chicago: a diverse and integrated high school.
But it comes at a cost — the mostly low-income, African-American National Teachers Academy would have to vacate its building and break up a high-performing school. Existing NTA students would move to South Loop Elementary, which is getting a new, larger building. At three public hearings this summer, strong opposition emerged from NTA parents as well as some South Loop Elementary families.
“We have been pitted against each other by a very small group of very rich people,” argued Shannon Sullivan, an NTA mother who lives in Bronzeville.
NTA parents see the plan, which was floated by top CPS officials this spring and supported by the local alderman, as driven by a politically connected South Loop community organization, the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance. CPS said it will decide its plans for NTA by September. The earliest the new high school would open is 2019.
Chicago is proposing a new high school in the South Loop (highlighted in red). Here's a look at what high schools already exist in the area:
In the middle of this fight are Chinatown residents, thrown into tense discussions about race, class and gentrification. Many advocates for a Chinatown high school said they initially resisted getting sucked in. Early on, they didn’t push for a specific location for a new high school.
But as time wore on, they began to worry this might be their only shot. If they don’t buy into this proposed high school, another chance might not come along for decades, said David Wu, executive director of the Pui Tak Center, a religious-based community organization in Chinatown.
They began highlighting some of the selling points advanced by CPS officials and Ald. Pat Dowell, whose 3rd Ward includes parts of Chinatown, Bronzeville and the South Loop. Advocates for the proposed high school have focused on the new high school’s potential diversity, and they have tried winning over NTA elementary school parents by touting the higher scores at South Loop Elementary.
Dowell, who announced her support for CPS’ plan this week, said she resents how a “small group of parents” have claimed that closing a majority black school is discriminatory. Dowell, who is black, noted that the new schools created under this plan will have the potential to be more diverse than the schools they are replacing.
CPS and its supporters have also focused on the reasons NTA would make a good high school. Built in 2002, its modern campus includes a large courtyard, an athletic field, a track and a swimming pool, one of the city’s few elementary schools with one.
‘We’re fighting over scraps’
Many NTA parents said they sympathize with the Chinatown families and understand their desire for a local high school. But they also have pointed to what they say are holes in their arguments. Chicago children across the city travel for school. Less than a quarter of Chicago Public Schools students go to a neighborhood high school, CPS data shows. Many travel several miles on public transit to get to one.
Critics have also pointed to several high schools south of Chinatown that are starved for students and could be helped by an uptick in enrollment from students in Chinatown. Many of those schools are low performing and serve mostly poor, black students, making some NTA parents wonder if that’s why Chinese families are rejecting them.
NTA parents have warned the families of Chinatown that they might not even be included in the boundaries of the new high school. CPS will not publicly unveil the school’s boundaries until it is closer to opening the school — a move some critics have said is designed to avoid generating more controversy. Dowell said she wants the boundaries to be set earlier.
“We are fighting over scraps,” said Hap Bryant, an NTA parent, at one of the public hearings about CPS’ plans earlier this summer. Bryant noted that the new high school would only serve a thousand students, and he suspects that students from the South Loop will be prioritized. He urged everyone else to get a firm commitment from CPS that they would be included in the attendance boundary.
“So people of Chinatown, people from Bridgeport, people from Armour Square, you better get that written in something hard because I can tell you it is not worth much,” he said.
Chinatown makes its case
But Chinatown leaders insist this is their moment. The Chinese population in the area has more than doubled over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census. In a 2012 visioning plan created by a coalition of community organizations around Chinatown’s centennial, residents identified a high school as a top need.
And the creation of a new $45 million property tax last year for school construction across the city gave them an opening to advocate for a new high school.
“We laid all this ground work documenting everything with the facts, with the issue, with the momentum, with the community support,” said C.W. Chan, a longtime activist in Chinatown. “The timing was just perfect.”
Chinatown students are mostly assigned to Phillips High School, which is located about two and a half miles from the main intersection in Chinatown. Phillips is all black, all poor and is low performing. Wu said Chinatown families have long rejected Phillips, mostly because of its performance.
That means large numbers of students have gone to different schools. For the last decade or so, the ones that haven’t gotten into test-in schools have mostly wound up at Kelly High School, which is about four miles from the heart of Chinatown. Wu said Kelly is welcoming and is the closest school with a bilingual Cantonese and Mandarin program.
Ren Li said many Chinese parents like her don’t consider Kelly or Phillips acceptable options. The pressure to get her oldest son into a top test-in high school led her to move him repeatedly during grade school in search of a better academic environment.
He ended up in a selective program at Whitney Young High School and then enrolled in an accelerated program at the University of Illinois-Chicago at age 16.
But Li said he was unhappy.
“He felt lonely and sad,” Li said. “He felt he doesn’t have a friend because I move him to much. …I move him too much, honestly, because academically I want him to be better and better.”
She said she regrets transferring him so much. Li said she wants her 6-year-old son to have the option of a good neighborhood high school.
That’s why she got involved in the fight for one.
“Let’s be a little selfish with this project,” Li said.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.