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Before Opening Near South Side High School, City Must Support Existing Schools In The Area, 4th Ward Candidates Say

Some candidates are calling for a written commitment by Chicago Public Schools leaders to invest in existing schools before creating another high school.

Rep. Lamont Robinson (l) talks to residents as Ebony Lucas (c) and Helen West wait to speak at the 4th Ward aldermanic forum Jan. 31.
Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago
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THE GAP — The six candidates running to lead the 4th Ward criticized Chicago Public Schools’ efforts to build a $150 million high school on the Near South Side, saying that investment is badly needed in the ward’s underresourced schools.

Aldermanic hopefuls Helen West, Ebony Lucas, Khari Humphries, Rep. Lamont Robinson, Tracey Bey and Prentice Butler appeared before neighbors last week at Hartzell Memorial United Methodist Church, 3330 S. King Drive, for their second forum ahead of the Feb. 28 election. Journalist Art Norman moderated.

The group answered questions about education and economic development from constituents collected by the Quad Communities Development Corporation, one of several organizations that sponsored the event.

One question was about the possibility of Bronzeville’s Pershing Magnet School serving as a feeder school for the controversial Near South High School, which has been planned for former public housing land in the neighboring 3rd Ward.

All six candidates agreed Chicago Public Schools should ensure the district reinvests in nearby high schools before moving ahead with its plans to open another school.

“I’d like to see a sustainability plan for both Dunbar and Phillips,” Butler said. “It makes no sense that we’re funding $150 million for schools that are new while not doing what we need to do to support Phillips and Dunbar. We have to be holistic.”

Humphries said the district should not be able to move forward before agreeing in writing to invest at least $20 million in each nearby high school. Bey concurred, saying she spoke to a Dunbar culinary student who told her they lack the resources to make meals.

“We have an issue we need to deal with right here with our other schools before we try to get money for a brand-new school,” Bey said.

Lucas told the crowd she supports the funding of neighborhood schools so residents “don’t have to have feeder schools.”

“Where you live should be a feeder to the school in your community. The people who live in Jones’s [College Prep] backyard should be able to go to Jones, but there are only 143 spots for South Loop [Elementary] students to attend the school,” Lucas said. “… $150 million of our tax dollars should be going to our neighborhood schools so we don’t have to talk about one school being a feeder for another while leaving other children behind.”

The candidates also shared ideas to boost economic development throughout the area.

Robinson and Lucas called for more investments in programs like Invest South/West and the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund to attract businesses to the ward.

Robinson said the city should expand Invest South/West to include more small business support, particularly for entrepreneurs like him who get priced out of neighborhoods.

Lucas said the initiative has done a great deal to support Black and Brown entrepreneurs and suggested a collaboration with other programs like AfterSchool Matters to provide students with job opportunities.

“When I was on the Mandrake Park Advisory Council, we brought in a culinary arts program, and the kids were actually paid to learn about that industry, learn how they have programs for students that are doing culinary arts, so that the after-school program is actually supplementing the programs that are in CPS,” Lucas said.

Invest INVEST South/West projects are in various stages of completion, with 4400 Grove — a retail and residential complex that opened in 2020 — seen as proof of the program’s success.

Block Club reported in December while the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund has awarded $32 million to 187 grantees since 2017, an audit by the Office of the Inspector General concluded there’s room for improvement as there is no way to meaningfully measure its success.

West pointed to Bronzeville Lakefront as an example of successful economic development happening in the ward, saying the $3.8 billion plan to redevelop the former Michael Reese Hospital campus could bring more money to the community. She also touted the success of small business incubators in the ward that help entrepreneurs reduce startup costs and other expenses.

“The incubator at 35th and King Drive has one small business that houses 10 other small businesses. … It gives them an opportunity to market their wares,” West said. “It’s a program we should be thinking harder about.”

Humphries suggested more support for special service areas and community development organizations that work to build up commercial corridors. Bey supported expanding One Summer Chicago to adults interested in workforce training and development.

“One Summer Chicago was the best thing ever. We engaged these kids, we kept them off the street and out of trouble. It’s something we should continue and offer to adults so that they can receive workforce development so that they can be successful,” Bey said.

A third 4th Ward forum is 6-8 p.m. Thursday at 637 S. Dearborn St.

The election is Feb. 28. If no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote, the top two will go to a runoff April 4.

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