Lugenia Burns
Lugenia Burns Hope Center Executive Director Roderick Wilson calls on the city to halt plans for a new Near South high school at a press conference July 21. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

CITY HALL — Days after the Chicago Housing Authority approved a land lease to Chicago Public Schools for a new community high school, activists are accusing Mayor Lori Lightfoot of dirty politicking to push the proposal through.

Neighbors, elected officials and organizers in Chinatown, the South Loop and other nearby communities long have pushed for their own high school. The plans for the $120 million facility took a big step forward last week when the public housing agency agreed to slice off a portion of the former Harold Ickes Homes being redeveloped at 24th and State streets and set that aside for a new school.

The plan appeared stalled until recently, when Lightfoot appointed three new members to the schools board, including ally and former West Side alderman Michael Scott Jr.

The Sun-Times reported the former board member Scott replaced, Dwayne Truss, felt he’d been ousted because he’d planned to vote against the high school proposal. Truss could not be reached for further comment.

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A coalition of activists from several groups — including the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), Lugenia Burns Hope Center and Raise Your Hand Illinois — joined Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) in front of City Hall Thursday to demand the city move the school elsewhere, or nix the plan altogether.

“[Lightfoot] is continuing the policies of [Mayor] Richard Daley when he shut down the housing projects, and the policies of [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel when he said ‘one out of four Black kids weren’t going to make it anyway,'” Kenwood’s executive director Jitu Brown said. “We believe that the people in Chinatown and surrounding communities should determine where they want their high school — but is it that urgent?”

Brown then listed over a half-dozen underpopulated high schools in the area — including Wendell Phillips Academy and Dunbar Vocational High School — that could accommodate the burgeoning Near South population.

Amid calls for an elected school board and public housing protections, Sigcho-Lopez laid said any school should be built with input from parents and community residents and blamed Lightfoot for the ongoing exodus of Black Chicagoans from the city. Lightfoot’s office declined to comment for this story.

“They continue to push for market-rate housing, they continue to displace residents, especially in the Black community … 290,000 residents left because of that. Ald. [Jeanette] Taylor waited 20 years for a voucher. This is an urgent call to public officials to stop the giveaway of public land,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) speaks with Ald. Nicole Lee (11th) at a City Council meeting on June 22, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Under the 99-year land lease agreement, CPS will be allowed to build the open-enrollment high school on the southernmost part of the former Harold Ickes Homes. Southbridge, a mixed-income development, is under construction on the site with plans for 244 units set aside for CHA residents. So far, 206 mixed-income units have been completed, officials said.

In exchange, the housing agency would get two acres of land in the 2300 block of South Wabash Avenue to build the rest of the Southbridge development.

The deal depends on CPS approving $70 million of district funding for the school and buying the land on Wabash to swap with the housing agency, according to board documents. The housing agency must also get approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to repurpose that part of the land.

Ald. Nicole Lee (11th) has made the new high school one of her primary goals. Lee said she thinks the former Harold Ickes Homes is still the best option, saying the school would serve “both sides of the Dan Ryan.”

But she stressed the housing agency must fulfill its commitment to former residents to bring low-income housing back to the land.

“That’s sort of a non-starter to me, and I truly believe that both can be accomplished,” Lee said. “The school being located at this site ensures it will serve the community that will be coming back there,” Lee said, adding that she hopes to talk to the activist coalition about the issue.

Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, also has pushed for a new school but told Block Club she believes The 78 would be a much better location. She said she and other community residents want to explore other sites.

“The 78 would be accessible to students in these nearby communities. This will be a school for everyone and the location should reflect that,” said McKibben.

The 78 is a massive development being touted as Chicago’s 78th neighborhood. The development is set to bring 1.5 million square feet of office space, 700,000 square feet of residential space and fitness, retail, hospitality and restaurants to a former railroad yard adjacent to the Chicago River, sandwiched between the South Loop and Chinatown.

Some, like Sigcho-Lopez and Lugenia Burns Hope Center Executive Director Roderick Wilson, still feel that the city is using the proposed school to not only pit communities against one other, but to continue segregationist policies that have led to the city’s decline.

“I had an alderman tell me 10, 15 years ago, ‘The people who are moving to this neighborhood don’t want to go to school with your children,” Wilson said. “That’s what they’re doing when they create new charter schools, then a new neighborhood school that eventually becomes underutilized and forced to close. But you created this crisis. It’s about moving populations and forcing people out.”

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