NEAR WEST SIDE — A longtime alderman said he won’t support a proposed high school on the Near West Side if the school’s boundaries don’t include the predominantly black areas of the Near West Side as well as the booming West Loop.
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) said he won’t back the $70 million Near West Side high school plan unless the school’s attendance boundaries extend west of Ashland Avenue. The kids that live there “deserve a great choice just like everyone east of Ashland does,” he said.
“I represent all my people the same,” said Burnett, who described the area west of Ashland as ethnically and economically diverse.
Earlier this month, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools announced a $1 billion investment in capital improvements at CPS schools, which included a new high school on the Near West Side. But CPS hasn’t provided details on where the high school will be located and said they will be working with neighbors to identify a location for the proposed school.
Burnett, whose ward include portions of the West Loop, Greektown, Garfield Park, the Near North Side, Old Town, West Humboldt Park, West Town and the Medical District, said he has yet to find out where the school will be located on the Near West Side or whether it will fall within his ward.
CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said the district would be working with the community to identify a location for the new high school, part of a “neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to increase educational opportunities for students across the city.”
“Several community groups and local leaders have advocated for a new high school on the Near West Side, and the district shares the community’s vision of expanding high-quality educational opportunities to children of all backgrounds,” Bolton said in an email.
Neighbors advocating for the school have set their sights on the soon-to-be-vacated Chicago Police Academy building at 1300 W. Jackson Blvd.
The coalition of parents and leaders pushing for the high school is exploring other options to house the school, too. Those options include a potential expansion of Whitney Young or a repurposing of other existing buildings on the Near West Side, according to Armando Chacon, West Central Association president.
“We’re working with CPS on determining what’s possible, what’s the best option given limited resources,” Chacon told Block Club Chicago earlier this month.
The coalition, led by CPS parent Chacon, a West Loop Realtor and former Skinner West Local School Council member, and Dennis O’Neill, executive director of Connecting 4 Communities, has pushed for a high school that would serve the Near West Side’s neighborhoods — which include the West Loop, Little Italy, University Village, Tri-Taylor and the United Center area — for some time.
Under their proposal, the school wouldn’t just serve the wealthy West Loop, Chacon argued, it would serve neighborhoods as far west as Western Avenue.
“This wouldn’t just be a high school for the West Loop, it would [serve] a wide range of families up and down the socioeconomic spectrum,” he said.
But CPS will have the final say on the neighborhood high school’s boundaries.
Skinner West Neighborhood Boundaries ‘Racist,’ Alderman Says
Burnett, a veteran alderman, has previously criticized how CPS mapped out neighborhood school boundaries, specifically at Skinner West Elementary School in the West Loop.
In 2008, CPS introduced a neighborhood school program to the Level 1+ CPS grade school, which was exclusively classical at the time. Burnett lobbied for the neighborhood boundaries to expand west of Ashland, however, the district drew the school boundaries from Ashland Avenue on the west, Eisenhower Expressway to the south, Kinzie Street on the north and the Chicago River on the east.
The alderman said CPS officials justified the decision by saying they didn’t want young children walking past a busy street like Ashland. But Burnett countered that the boundaries would still have children crossing busy streets including Halsted.
“I thought it was very unfair. It was a segregated type of map to me,” Burnett said. “I was very candid at that time … I thought it was racist. I had a big fight about this. I was never satisfied. It still perturbs me, somewhat.”
In 2016, following a push to expand overcrowded Skinner West, Burnett cautioned that he wouldn’t sign off on an expansion until a plan was in place to provide other benefits for West Side CPS schools in his ward.
“I said I’m not going to support an expansion unless you do something with the schools west of Ashland,” Burnett said. “I felt like we were doing a lot at Skinner, and I thought that that was unfair. I wanted to make sure the folks west of Ashland had something too.”
“In order for me to do something at Skinner School with me closing schools on the West Side, I have to get something for the West Side schools first,” Burnett told DNAinfo at the time.
In a compromise, William H. Brown Elementary, a school west of Ashland near the United Center, became a STEM school, focused on a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics curriculum, and teachers were added at the school.
“I wouldn’t have felt justified [expanding Skinner] if I couldn’t do anything for Brown. We can’t just take care of folks who have a high income, we have to take care of folks who have low income,” he told DNAinfo.
Burnett said he’ll have more leverage on the proposed high school’s boundaries than he did with Skinner West, especially if the CPS needs tax-increment financing (TIF) dollars to build the campus.
“Wherever the school is they are probably going to need TIF money in order to do it and I have to sign off on that,” he said.
In 2017, Smyth Elementary Principal Ronald Whitmore asked the group advocating for a new high school to consider the racial implications of their push. Smyth, a neighborhood magnet school in University Village, serves 495 students, 93 percent of whom are Black, and 97 percent of whom are low income, according to CPS data.
“For the last nine years, [Smyth] has really tried to change the perception of a community school that most of you would never send your children to because of the socioeconomics and the race that the kids I serve are from,” Whitmore said. “There are some deep-seeded issues that we have to be honest enough to deal with.”