By Susan Fong
A proposed new Chicago Public Schools (CPS) high school is both welcome and opposed by local residents, with some looking forward to better educational facilities and others wondering why the City will build the school where affordable and public housing was supposed to be.
The City intends to locate the school at 24th and State Streets in the Southbridge development, where the Harold Ickes Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) dwellings once stood. The school would serve the Chinatown, North Bronzeville, Bridgeport, South Loop, and Near South communities. Southbridge will be a mixed-income, mixed-use development featuring retail and housing across a broad spectrum of affordability.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot supports the new high school.
Former CPS board member Dwayne Truss said, “We knew last September that State Representative Theresa Mah had set aside $50 million” in State funds for the school, leaving the CPS board to come up with another $70 million for the $120 million project.
Truss, who wanted to obtain more community input about the school issue and leaned toward voting against the school, noted that, in June, “I had asked that the project be pulled from the 2022-23 capital budget” to delay it. The board did so, and Mayor Lightfoot subsequently removed Truss from the board and replaced him with a political ally, former alderman Michael Scott Jr. She also appointed two other new members to the board.
Three community groups, Lugenia Burns Hope Center (LBHC), Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), and Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education (RYH), oppose locating the school at 24th and State because when the City removed Ickes Homes residents from the site in the early 2000s, it promised them the right of return there to new housing, which would be one-third public housing, one-third affordable housing, and one-third market rate.
Former CHA residents already feel betrayed by CHA’s designating land that formerly held public housing for other uses. In 2013, CHA allowed Jones College Prep to use a parcel of its land for a field house, and this year, the CHA approved building a practice facility for the Chicago Fire soccer team on Near West Side CHA land.
Karen Vaughan, CHA deputy director of communications and marketing, said the proposal involves a 99-year ground lease, with CHA retaining ownership of the 24th and State property. As part of the proposal, CHA would receive two additional parcels of land on South Wabash within close walking distance to where the City will build housing. Those two parcels’ combined size exceeds that of the parcel CHA potentially would lease to CPS—two acres on Wabash versus 1.7 acres for the school, Vaughan noted.
Grace Chan-Mckibben, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, supports the new school. She said, “The Chinese community has been advocating for a public high school that is not selective enrollment, charter, or special purpose.”
She noted Chinatown students sometimes have opted to travel outside their assigned school boundaries to other schools better equipped to work with immigrant students.
Angela X. Lin, cofounder of People Matter, said, “Chinatown community members and leaders have been advocating for a new high school for a long time, due to current neighborhood high schools not having the language access resources for Chinese immigrant youth with limited English proficiency.”
While leaders in the Chinatown community welcome a new school, they understand opposition to the proposed site.
“Because of the controversial use of the Ickes land for the high school, the Chinatown community has been urging the Chicago Public Schools for another site, such as the 78 development which has 12 acres,” said David Wu, executive director of Pui Tak Center.
Concern for other schools
The new school raises major concern for the area’s African American community, not only because many want public housing to return to the site but because they also feel it would divert resources away from nearby majority African American schools.
“What we want is equity—we don’t need another high school,” said LBHC executive director Roderick Wilson. “The new high school would drain both resources and students. There are three neighboring high schools. Those schools may soon be on the closing list because of low performance or attendance. Our students need leaders who believe in them and resources to help make our schools and students competitive.”
Rep. Mah believes the new school will provide a long awaited positive addition for the Chinese but also feels the CPS should invest resources in other neighborhood schools.
Wilson reiterated, “What we need first and foremost is housing. African Americans have lived here when no one else would. CHA has pushed out our community with no opportunity to return.”
According to Vaughan, this proposal remains in the “conceptual” phase, and CHA will continue to consult with residents and community members throughout the process.
The CHA, together with a development company, organized a series of townhall meetings with a video presentation about the new school. Etta Davis, an LBHC leader and Dearborn Homes resident, attended three recent meetings. Afterward, Davis questioned officials’ motivation for the presentation, as there was “no opportunity for real input,” she said.
“This location is in the crosshairs of interests that want to appease a particular economic group and race,” said Shannon Bennett, executive director at KOCO. “That is, they want to gentrify. So what will be next?”
The City is building housing in Southbridge. The largest parcel will provide mixed use with 877 residential units planned; to date it has built 206. The City promises it will set aside 244 units for CHA residents—with no mention of affordable housing.
People Matter cofounder Consuela Hendricks stated, “Our low-income Black, Brown, and Asian communities deserve both public housing and quality education. CPS should engage the communities of color who are being impacted by their decisions and make decisions based on community input.”
For CHA, log onto www.thecha.org. For KOCO, log on to https://kocoonline.org/. For LBHC, log on to www.lbhopecenter.com. For People Matter, log on to https://www.peoplematter.one/. The Pui Tak Center website is www.puitak.org. For RYH, log on to www.ilraiseyourhand.org.