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South Chicago, East Side

Closed South Side School Will Become Community Center With Early Childhood, After-School And Senior Programs

Chicago Youth Centers will turn the former Buckingham Special Education Center in Calumet Heights into a neighborhood hub. It won't replace the school, but it will offer support systems for local families, leaders said.

The crew at UJAMAA Construction works to convert the shuttered CPS Buckingham Special Education Center, 9207 S. Phillips Ave., into a Chicago Youth Centers community center in Calumet Heights on March 31, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CALUMET HEIGHTS — A South Side elementary school closed alongside dozens of other Chicago public schools in 2013 will be redeveloped into community center with programs for kids and older people.

The former Buckingham Special Education Center, 9207 S. Phillips Ave. in Calumet Heights, sat empty for nearby a decade. Nonprofit Chicago Youth Centers is bringing it back to life to host early childhood programs for kids 15 months to 5 years old, and afterschool and summer programs for older children.

The center will be modeled off of the nonprofit’s Rebecca K. Crown Youth Center in South Shore.

Chicago Youth Centers will also offer programs for older people “because of the demographics of this community,” marking its first foray into working with elders, President and CEO Kevin Cherep said.

“That’s a new wrinkle we are developing strictly because of the market there: intergenerational programming between seniors and youth,” Cherep said.

Specific programs will be hashed out in the coming months, while Chicago Youth Centers aims to finish construction and open the center by the fall, Cherep said.

Whether it’s allowing older people to use a track on campus for walking, creating an outdoor sitting area or facilitating connections between youth and their elders, the inclusion of older people in the center’s programs “is pretty exciting,” said state Rep. Curtis Tarver, who represents parts of the South Side.

“We have a lot of seniors who are raising grandkids and great-grandkids,” Tarver said. “I wanted to make sure when this property came back on the rolls, it wasn’t something just for younger folks — I wanted it to be for our seniors, as well.”

Tarver helped secure $5 million in state capital grant funds for the project. Chicago Youth Centers bought the former school building from the city for $1 last year.

Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) was “vital in the process” of redeveloping the center, as he worked with Chicago Public Schools and the city to help Chicago Youth Centers acquire the building, Tarver said. Mitchell did not respond to Block Club’s requests for comment.

“This was a situation where you had two public officials who were willing to put their time and their effort into making a really difficult thing happen,” Cherep said.

There’s “still about $1.5 million we’re still trying to raise privately” for operating costs and to furnish the building, Cherep said. A fundraising campaign will be launched within the next several weeks, he said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
An old classroom as the crew at UJAMAA Construction works to convert the shuttered CPS Buckingham Special Education Center, 9207 S. Phillips Ave., into a Chicago Youth Centers community center in Calumet Heights on March 31, 2022.

Buckingham was one of only three Chicago public schools exclusively serving elementary and middle school students with emotional disorders before it was closed, according to South Side Weekly.

A hearing officer who oversaw the debate over Buckingham’s future objected to closing the school, as students were forced to transfer to Moses Montefiore Academy on the Near West Side, 14 miles away.

Fourteen former Buckingham students moved to Montefiore, which itself was emptied out by 2015 and shut down in 2016.

While Chicago Youth Centers “won’t be replacing a school — because that’s not what we do — a lot of support systems that families and communities find, they will be able to access with our community center” at the former Buckingham building, Cherep said.

Christopher Kimmons, a Calumet Heights resident, leads Chicago Youth Centers’ local advisory board, which will help develop programs. He said he would have benefitted from a similar center, as he “grew up pretty tough” and experienced trauma growing up as a young man in nearby South Shore.

The community center won’t be exclusively focused on kids with emotional disorders as Buckingham was, but “we want to make sure we’re creating emotionally healthy youth and teenagers,” Kimmons said.

Kimmons would like to see the center offer information technology and computer science courses, golf lessons and other programs that “not only challenge [kids] physically but also challenge them mentally,” he said.

The center’s location at the former school “is symbolic, especially because you see a lot of schools closing and not reopening” for any purpose, Kimmons said.

“For a lack of better terms, we’ll be able to reopen this school,” he said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The crew at UJAMAA Construction is working to convert the shuttered CPS Buckingham Special Education Center, 9207 S. Phillips Ave., into a Chicago Youth Centers community center in Calumet Heights on March 31, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The old mascot at shuttered CPS Buckingham Special Education Center, 9207 S. Phillips Ave., as construction crews turn it into a Chicago Youth Centers community center in Calumet Heights on March 31, 2022.

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