NEAR WEST SIDE — One year after Chicago Public Schools and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a new $70 million Near West Side High School, plans for the new neighborhood CPS high school now appear to be in limbo.
Now that CPS’ new capital budget is out and new Mayor Lori Lightfoot is staring down a budget crisis, “it’s up in the air,” Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) told Block Club.
Last July, the school district announced a new Near West Side neighborhood high school would be built to “support the growing student population” and establish a “high-quality high school,” CPS officials said at the time. Following the announcement, CPS officials declined to say where the school would be built.
Earlier this month, the district unveiled its new capital budget for the upcoming year, which includes $820 million in spending to fix up 300 schools and add more pre-K classrooms. Noticeably absent was the previously budgeted Near West Side high school.
“We don’t know if they are thinking about a new school somewhere else,” Burnett said. “I have no idea.”
If funding is allocated, Burnett reiterated his support for a new Near West Side high school as long as the boundaries would extend west to Western Avenue, he said.
In a statement, a CPS spokesperson said they are still in the process of “evaluating options for locations.” But the spokesperson would not answer questions about whether a high school was still specifically planned on the Near West Side — or when one might be built.
“This decision cannot be rushed and it’s important to carefully choose a location that will benefit area students for generations to come, especially when the population is rapidly changing in that area,” the district said in an email statement.
The West Loop’s current open enrollment CPS high school is Wells Community Academy High School, a Level 2+ school in West Town. The school is underutilized, with its student body occupying just one-third of the building. Almost 89 percent of Wells students come from low-income households; About 49 percent of the school’s students are Black, and 44 percent are Hispanic, according to CPS data.
Despite the Wells option, a coalition of parents and leaders have pushed for years for a new high school to be built in the booming area.
That coalition, led by Armando Chacon, a West Loop Realtor and former Skinner West Local School Council member, and Dennis O’Neill, executive director of Connecting 4 Communities, 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.
The neighbor-led coalition has proposed a high school that would serve students coming from eight neighborhood and magnet CPS schools: Skinner West, a selective-enrollment classical and neighborhood school in the West Loop; Andrew Jackson Language Academy, a magnet school in University Village; Washington/Irving Elementary, a neighborhood school in Tri-Taylor; Smyth Elementary, a neighborhood magnet school in University Village; Galileo Scholastic Academy, a magnet school in University Village; STEM Magnet Academy, a magnet school in University Village; Suder Montessori, a magnet school on the Near West Side; and Brown Elementary, a neighborhood school on the Near West Side.
Neighbors who have advocated for the school set their sights on the soon-to-be-vacated Chicago Police Academy building at 1300 W. Jackson Blvd. They’ve also advocated for the repurposing of the current Urban Prep Academy building at 1326 W. 14th Place, should the charter school be relocated.
On Monday, Chacon expressed disappointment the high school wasn’t included in CPS’ latest budget. Despite its noticeable absence, Chacon said the group is more energized than ever to make their case to Lightfoot directly.
“We cannot ignore the growth of the Near West Side…We see this as a fundamental and basic need for the community,” Chacon said.
The community group plans to hold community meetings on their high school plan in the coming months, Chacon said.
Joyce Kenner, longtime principal of Whitney Young Magnet High School, a prestigious CPS selective-enrollment high school on the Near West Side, previously expressed opposition to the neighbor-led plan that would’ve housed a CPS high school at the soon-to-be-vacated police academy site next to Whitney Young.
Kenner said she still opposes that plan.
“I definitely don’t support a high school on that property. It would be ridiculous to have another high school next to ours,” she said. “There is no other high school in the city with another high school next to it.”
Neighbors have also floated the idea of adding a neighborhood component at selective-enrollment Whitney Young that would serve neighborhood students. If such a plan is being considered, Kenner said she can only support it if students from the neighborhood tested into the competitive school.
“There would need to be some sort of standard to be fair to everyone else in the city, you can’t just walk into Whitney Young just because you live over here. It wouldn’t be fair to the rest of Chicago,” Kenner 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 at the time. “There are some deep-seeded issues that we have to be honest enough to deal with.”
The Near West Side high school proposal came six years after the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 Chicago schools, including many on the city’s South and West Sides.
In 2016, CPS announced a $20 million dollar expansion at Skinner West, a prominent West Loop elementary school, to address overcrowding. At the time, WBEZ reporters argued that the expansion perpetuated CPS’ racial and economic divide.
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