The rumors and speculation that have been swirling around the South Loop for weeks were clarified Tuesday evening (June 6), as CPS unveiled a proposal to repurpose the National Teacher’s Academy PreK-8 school into a high school which would serve the South Loop, Chinatown, Armour Square, Bridgeport, and north Bronzeville neighborhoods.
After a presentation by CPS of the proposed plan and rationale, representatives from South Loop Elementary, the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, and National Teacher’s Academy spoke, followed by a series of community members who shared their feedback and questions to CPS about the plan.
The key themes from each community group’s remarks were as follows:
The Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community shared how their community has struggled with high school options due to needs for bilingual support / support for students who may still be achieving fluency in English and the lack of proximity to a quality high school that is not populated via selective enrollment or a city-wide lottery-based admission process.
Representatives from the South Loop Elementary Local School Council (LSC) shared how the history of overcrowding at South Loop Elementary has necessitated the plans to construct a new building, which is planned to open in the second semester of the 2018-19 school year with capacity of 1200 students. The building is planned to be the third building in the South Loop Elementary campus, in addition to the existing main school building at Plymouth Ct. and the Early Childhood Center at 19th and Federal. Together, the three buildings are projected to have a total capacity of 1800 students.
Representatives from National Teacher’s Academy (NTA) included the principal, Issac Castalez, and the head of the NTA’s Local School Council. They shared their disappointment that NTA was not included in the plans or dialogue about the proposal; a proposal which impacts NTA’s student population the most. Mr. Castalez shared that he learned of the plan on social media, not via communication from CPS directly. This lack of transparency has led to mistrust of the motives of CPS and a small special interest group who they feel have been driving a secret, closed-door agenda.
It was clear that of the three groups, NTA stands to lose, while each of the other groups will gain; Chinatown/Bridgeport et al gain a high school nearby, which they assume will be better than the Level 2 neighborhood high school options available to them today, and South Loop Elementary will gain the new building they have been asking for for years, since overcrowding became a concern.
The current plan calls for the Regional Gifted Center (RGC) which has been transitioning from South Loop Elementary to NTA over the past 4 years to be relocated to South Loop Elementary, and the neighborhood attendance boundaries for South Loop Elementary to be extended southward to 22nd Street (Cermak). Students living within the new boundary would move to the South Loop Elementary campus when the new building opens, as well as 7 students who live within the tiny remaining NTA boundary.
NTA parents expressed concern for the 383 students who are not included in these aforementioned groups. NTA, by nature of its history, has a number of students who live outside of the attendance boundary because they or their families resided in the Harold Ickes Homes, a CHA housing project which occupied the now grassy land directly to the East, along State Street. When their homes were torn down, these residents were assured that while they would be scattered from their neighbors to secure housing in other parts of the city, they would always have a school home at NTA. It is critical to maintain the promise of a community tie for these students and their families. NTA also participates in the CPS Options for Knowledge program, which allows for a number of seats in schools which are not at capacity to be filled via a city-wide lottery designed to provide school mobility to students whose own neighborhood schools are not highly ranked. There are currently 383 students at NTA who reside outside of the NTA attendance boundaries due to their affiliation with the Ickes Homes or the Options for Knowledge program, and because CPS has specifically noted that the other two student groups (RGC and those living within the new attendance boundaries) WILL be offered seats at the South Loop Elementary campus, community members are concerned that these 383 students, the majority of whom are low-income and African-American, will be forced to relocate to non-Level 1 neighborhood schools, negatively impacting their academic growth.
Feedback from the majority of the community members who spoke on behalf of the South Loop Elementary School and Chinatown/Bridgeport neighborhoods included messages that while the prospect of having a high school closer to their community is exciting, it should not come at the expense of students who are thriving and have found a school home in a better school than would otherwise have been available to them. Many NTA parents remarked after the meeting that it was refreshing and inspiring to hear members of our broader community affirm that students at NTA, regardless of their physical address, are indeed a part of our community and we have a duty to ensure that their best interests are also protected.
Some community members questioned what other alternatives, if any, were considered, and requested attendance projections to better understand whether the planned capacity of 1000 students in a converted NTA as high school would be enough to serve all of the communities who are clamoring for access. Others asked how CPS would ensure that this new high school would be of better quality than the existing Level 2 rated high schools in the area. Many residents expressed concern about the short timeframe in which the community meetings are scheduled, which affords little opportunity for constructive dialogue between meetings. One parent likened CPS’s current approach to the community meetings held in 2012 to discuss the proposal to relocate the RGC from South Loop Elementary to NTA, which he stated felt like a mere formality.
Prior to the presentation of this plan, many people in the neighborhood knew very little about NTA and its dramatic improvement, moving from a Level 3 (lowest rating) school to a Level 1 (second highest rating) in just three years. Unfortunately this rapid improvement is not yet reflected on sites which provide school ratings on real estate sites like GreatSchools.org, as data is not updated annually; the current data on that site for NTA is from 2014, when NTA had a far different climate and was only beginning its rise.
The goal of the Greater South Loop Association is to bring neighbors together in an inclusive manner to build community in our rapidly growing neighborhood. The challenge at hand presents an immense opportunity for our neighborhood to show leadership and affirm the reason why many of us chose to move here in the first place; to experience an urban lifestyle in a vibrant neighborhood which is among the most diverse in the city. Two key themes emerged through Tuesday evening’s dialogue; CPS needs to work transparently with the community on a comprehensive plan that considers current needs and planned future growth, and that plan needs to ensure that it does not come at the expense of any students in the school communities most impacted by it.