NEAR SOUTH SIDE — A neighborhood high school may finally be coming to the Near South Side.
Chicago Public Schools’ newly released capital budget calls for allocating $70 million towards the construction of a neighborhood high school serving Armour Square, Bridgeport, Bronzeville, Chinatown and the South Loop.
The Illinois Assembly set aside $50 million in 2020 for the school, which was proposed by State Rep. Theresa Mah (D-IL). Mah told Gazette Chicago that Chinatown community leaders including Coalition for a Better Chinese Community and Pui Tak Center Executive Director David Wu have long advocated for a local high school.
In a statement, CPS told Block Club they were “early in the engagement process” for the new school, and would be looking to the community for input, beginning with “a community-led planning process” this summer. Two budget hearings are scheduled for June 13 and 15, with budget capital planning hearings June 15-17.
CPS attempted to close the National Teachers Academy elementary school and turn it into a high school years ago, but the move was blocked by a judge in 2018 after staff and parents fought for it to remain a K-8 school.
The proposed new school would not impact the academy.
“I feel like we’re so much closer than we’ve ever been. … I can see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Ald. Nicole Lee (11th). “It’s a pretty complicated needle to thread with just balancing the needs of the students that are in this region. We’ve got tons of great elementary schools but it’s a bit of a neighborhood high school desert.”
Between the South Loop and Bronzeville, there are three public high schools: Jones College Prep (a selective enrollment school), Dunbar Vocational and Wendell Phillips Academy. Both Dunbar and Phillips serve a high percentage of low-income students. Statewide, both rank in the bottom half based on standardized testing and graduation rates.
But there are no high schools immediately west of Bronzeville to serve the increasing number of residents on the Near South Side. Lee believes a strong open enrollment high school in the area would mean an easier commute for students who typically have to travel out of their neighborhoods.
“I know kids in Bridgeport who travel all the way to Lane Tech for school. That’s a two-hour public transportation commute in each direction, which isn’t conducive to you being part of extracurricular activities. If you are, you’re commuting at all hours of the evening and losing time to study. So this high school will be a real game changer,” said Lee, whose children will be attending Whitney Young High School next year.
Similar plans to convert a former police academy building to an open enrollment high school on the Near West Side went nowhere, though CPS budgeted $70 million for that project. While many residents supported the idea, former Whitney Young High School principal Joyce Kenner nixed it, fearing that a school wedged between Young and a nearby elementary school would cause traffic congestion.
Lee admits that a lack of available space may pose a challenge, but she’s hopeful CPS will do their best to engage the community as the process continues. With plans still in the preliminary stage, it’s unclear which sites are being considered.
“I’ll be looking for proximity to populations it would serve, and how convenient it would be for kids to access. It would have to be walkable, close to public transit with green space and room for athletic facilities,” said Lee, noting that student-athletes at Jones are forced to train off campus due to the lack of facilities.
Lee was appointed to the City Council in March by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, replacing Patrick Daley Thompson. One of her first publicly stated goals was delivering a high school to the area.
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