The proposed site for a new CPS high school, a vacant lot at 24th and State streets where the former Harold L. Ickes Homes sat, as seen from above the Near South Side on July 26, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHINATOWN — Residents remain split over a proposed Near South Side high school, debating whether it’s needed and, if it is, if it should open on land that was supposed to be used for public housing.

Residents gathered Thursday at Ward Elementary, 2701 S. Shield Ave., with local organizers for a town hall about the $120 million school proposed for the southernmost part of the former Harold Ickes Homes at 24th and State streets.

Etta Davis, a Lugenia Burns Hope Center organizer; Debbie Liu, organizer with the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community; and Candace Williams, an organizer with Chicago United for Equity served as panelists for the town hall.

Angela Lin and Consuela Hendricks, co-founders of People Matter, organized the event.

The Chicago Housing Authority approved a land lease agreement with Chicago Public Schools last month paving the way for CPS to build the open-enrollment high school. It would share the site with Southbridge, a mixed-income development where 244 units would be set aside for CHA residents.

The school and the targeted location has become a point of contention; some neighbors have pushed for it to be built for years to serve growing Near South populations, while other local activists believe it would create even more segregation and siphon students away from underpopulated schools.

Davis told the crowd of about 30 residents the city should first keep its promise to build public housing at the site, allowing people to return to the neighborhood. She’d prefer for officials to focus on supporting existing schools, though she is not completely opposed to building the school, she said.

Liu said other sites should be explored for the school; Williams said opposes the proposed high school.

(From left) Panelists Etta Davis, Debbie Liu and Candace Williams share their thoughts about the proposed Near South Side high school at a town hall discussion Thursday. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

All three panelists criticized CPS for a lack of transparency throughout the process, saying the district hasn’t done enough to reach out to the community about the project.

Davis and Lin were among a coalition of activists who protested the housing agency’s land swap deal outside City Hall last month, demanding the city choose another location or do away with the plan completely.

“We’ve asked CPS on multiple occasions to review different sites, like Canal [Street] and 18th [Street], The 78 … even the site over the viaduct at Stewart and Canal. They have not been transparent about any of them,” Lin said. “It just feels like we need to understand all options before we continue on, and we have to do some in-depth engagement.”

Rep. Theresa Mah, a Democrat representing the area and a longtime advocate who helped secure state funding for the school, told the audience The 78 site is “worth exploring.”

“I think it’s definitely worth having more discussions with the city, with developers and community members to see if that is a viable option,” Mah said.

Ald. Nicole Lee (11th), another new school proponent, favors the former public housing site, saying The 78’s industrial surroundings could be hard for students to navigate.

State Rep. Theresa Mah (D-IL) address the audience at a town hall to discuss a community high school planned for the Near South Side Thursday. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

Residents were also divided, some saying a school shouldn’t be built at all and calling for CPS to instead revitalize neglected neighborhood schools. The public high schools on the Near South Side are either underused and underfunded or — in the case of Jones College Prep — selective enrollment.

A former Ward student recalled how she and her sister were told “they would die” if they attended any of the neighborhood high schools, a comment rooted in racism, she said.

“We have to understand and recognize each other’s pain and figure out how to bring ourselves together,” said the woman, who said she’s seen little progress since working on equity and access initiatives as a high schooler eight years ago.

Other residents said strained race relations are proof a new school is necessary, with one man saying there was “a racial component to safety.”

It is not clear when the Chicago Board of Education will review the proposal for the school. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez have also thrown their support behind the proposal, echoing other proponents who say the school can serve the booming population of the Near South Side.

The proposed site for a new CPS high school, a vacant lot at 24th and State streets where the former Harold L. Ickes Homes sat, on July 26, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The plan appeared to be moving forward earlier this summer but Martinez abruptly pulled it from consideration just before the school board was set to vote on it in June. That decision came hours after WBEZ and Sun-Times detailed broad concerns about the school, including whether it was even needed considering enrollment declines in CPS.

But with the ouster of school board member Dwayne Truss, who had planned to vote against the proposed school — and the appointment of Lightfoot ally Michael Scott Jr. — the plan appeared to be back in play.

Despite the sometimes tense discussion, Lee said she saw Thursday’s discussion as “progress.”

“Today was a good start and long overdue for our two communities, the Asian community and the African American community, to have a dialogue about this subject. We all want the same things — good education, a safe place for our kids to go to school — and we need to focus on the places where we have common ground,” Lee said.

Lugenia Burns Hope Center is hosting another town hall meeting 5-6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, 2976 S. Wabash Ave.

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