Parents and community members packed the gymnasium at the South Loop Elementary School’s main building (1212 S. Plymouth) on Tuesday, June 21 and the cafeteria and gymnasium at National Teachers Academy on Monday, July 10 to hear more information and provide feedback on the recently released proposal to repurpose NTA into a high school serving the Near South neighborhoods of the South Loop, Chinatown, Bridgeport, Armor Square, and north Bronzeville.
If you missed our summary of the first meeting, you can read it here.
CPS plan updates since the June 6 meeting:
After reiterating the three goals of the proposal: to ensure high-quality neighborhood school options for grades PreK-12 in the Near South area, provide sufficient capacity of high-quality seats for the growing student population, and build diverse school communities into a set of high-quality PreK-12 schools, CPS presented the following updates to the proposal:
- All students enrolled at NTA when the new South Loop Elementary school building opens in 2019 will be welcome to enroll at South Loop Elementary. This is a change from the plan announced at the first meeting, which had not included 283 students who attend NTA but do not live within the proposed new South Loop Elementary boundaries due to displacement by the Chicago Housing Authority via the Ickes Homes demolition or participation in the lottery-based Options for Knowledge program.
- South Loop Elementary will retain and leverage all current buildings when the new building is opened, becoming a 3-school campus with buildings at 1915 S Federal, 16th and Dearborn, and 1212 S. Plymouth. The buildings will be organized by grade level, with each serving specific grade levels.
- The high school conversion plan and a transition plan to merge the two schools will be developed with input from representatives of both schools. SLE principal Tara Shelton shared some preliminary ideas regarding elements of a transition plan at the second meeting, such as: create a transition team with representation from both school communities, conduct listening tours to hear about school traditions which will be important to incorporate into the culture at SLE, have a back to school carnival and parent, teacher, and student meet and greets, pair each NTA student with a “welcome buddy” from SLE, and hold a mascot contest to merge the mascots of both schools. It was stressed that integration of both schools’ cultures will be an important focus for the new combined school community.
- NTA may gradually convert to a High School over a period of years. NTA students in the early grades, along with the RGC, will relocate to South Loop when the new South Loop building opens. NTA students in upper grades will have the option to enroll at South Loop or remain at NTA and graduate from 8th grade there and go to NTA as their high school. An example was shared, suggesting that when the new SLE building opens in 2019 NTA students in PreK-3rd grades and all RGC students would move to SLE, while NTA students in grades 4-8 would have the option to remain at NTA or to enroll at SLE and a 9th grade class would be added to NTA. In the 2020-21 school year, all students at NTA would advance a grade level so that NTA would house students in grades 5-10, the following year would house students in grades 6-11, and so on until the 24/25 school year when all lower grade students will have matriculated and NTA will house grades 9-12. It was unclear if the NTA students in the neighborhood program who move to South Loop Elementary and live out of the proposed new boundary area will be allowed to enroll in the NTA high school after they graduate from 8th
- No boundary has yet been finalized for the proposed high school. CPS shared that boundary decisions are not made until the year before a new school opens, which likely means the elementary schools feeding the proposed high school will not be confirmed until the Fall of 2018.
CPS representatives also shared information about other options the community has suggested, and why they were deemed less feasible than the proposed solution.
- Build a new high school on vacant land: CPS notes that this is not feasible in the near term due to cost. Building a new high school from the ground up will cost $75-100 million versus an estimated $10 million to convert NTA’s existing building to a high school.
- Strengthen existing area neighborhood high schools (Phillips, Tilden, add a neighborhood program to Dunbar): CPS shared that there has been investment in each of these schools over the past decade but parents in the Near South have been unwilling to send their students there, with less than 6% of families within the attendance boundaries of these schools sending their children.
- Build a high school on the site planned for SLE building #3 (the new building): CPS indicated that this is not feasible for the following reasons:
- Cost: the current budget for the new SLE building is $60 million, and the estimated cost to build a high school on that site could be as much as $100 million because additional floors would need to be added to the building to accommodate the larger space needs of a high school.
- Re-positioning the facility as a high school will be very difficult to do without additional cost and schedule impacts, given where the district is in the construction timeline.
- SLE’s overcrowding problem would not be resolved.
- Increasing the number of neighborhood seats available at Jones Prep High School: CPS noted that Jones’ utilization is currently at 95% (1819 enrolled, capacity is 1920), and that converting additional selective enrollment seats to neighborhood seats would not yield enough seats to meet the demand for a local high school. 75 neighborhood seats per freshman class are offered at Jones in the pre-law/pre-engineering program, and 371 incoming freshmen were enrolled in the selective enrollment program last school year (2016-17).
CPS also responded to questions raised about whether the current proposal considers planned future development in the Near South area: “CPS is monitoring the many developments in this area. The goal of the preliminary framework is to ensure access to high-quality neighborhood school options in the Near South area, provide sufficient capacity of high quality seats for the growing student population and build diverse school communities. The added high school seats are necessary today so that current elementary school students have a high quality neighborhood high school option nearby once they graduate. Additionally, the new South Loop Elementary School facility will bring ~1200* additional elementary school seats to the area to help address growth in the region.”
*It should be noted that the reference to 1200 additional elementary school seats in the above quote is inaccurate; 840 PreK-8 seats will be eliminated at NTA, resulting in 360 net new seats in the neighborhood. This translates to a capacity increase of 36 students per grade level (PreK-8). Today, NTA and SLES enroll 6 classes per grade level per year combined, and the addition of the new SLES building will allow for up to 7 classes per grade level.
Key themes and feedback from the community:
Community members from Chinatown and surrounding areas expressed the urgent, longstanding need for a quality high school to serve their community’s needs. Many heartfelt stories were shared regarding the struggles faced by Chinatown’s students. New immigrants struggle due to a lack of English as a Second Language (ESL) support at many high schools and the complexity of navigating the CPS high school enrollment process, and more established students wish for a school environment more inclusive of their cultural identity and that is closer to their community. A few speakers shared that they do not want for the high school to come at the cost of another school’s population, while some noted support for the proposed plan; one asked “what the harm is” for NTA students now that they will all have the opportunity to attend another high quality elementary school, and another encouraged the NTA and SLE communities to look at the situation as “a marriage” which will provide opportunities for new traditions to emerge. Most simply asked or demanded CPS to give their community access to a high quality high school, without mentioning specific support for or against the current proposal.
Parents from South Loop Elementary focused their messages on the opportunity the proposal provides to create something new and bring the neighborhood together as a stronger community. Many noted that parents from all communities share the common challenge regarding finding a quality high school option and that NTA families will also benefit from the high school. A strong desire to work together was expressed.
NTA parents and supporters had a substantial presence at both meetings. Many speakers shared concern and frustration over the lack of transparency and community involvement in the development of the proposal and reiterated their desire to preserve NTA as an independent elementary school. Many parents, some whose children have already experienced school displacement or are former residents of the Harold Ickes Homes, shared their personal stories of how their children or grandchildren have thrived in the supportive, family-like environment of the staff and school community, and expressed sadness and at times anger over the threat of losing “their village”. Others cited data, referencing NTA’s excellent school culture rating (don’t destroy a good thing) and noting that consolidating into one large school will negatively impact all students because studies have shown that large school size negatively impacts student performance (the proposed 3-building SLES will have the second-largest capacity of any PreK-8 school in the district).
Many speakers noted their support for relieving overcrowding at SLES and for a high school to serve the communities represented in the room, and challenged community members to not “settle” for this plan and to demand that CPS and elected officials work with the community to come up with a better solution than sacrificing NTA. One speaker asked the audience, “when you dream of a neighborhood high school, do you really picture a converted elementary school, or do you think of Jones, Lane, or Payton?” Another challenged Mayor Emmanuel to find the money to build a new high school from the ground up and urged Aldermen Dowell and Solis, who were in attendance, to stand together in support of both communities to make it happen.
A representative from the Chicago Teachers Union spoke against the proposal on behalf of NTA teachers at the second meeting. He reminded CPS representatives that NTA is not an “asset” to be deployed; it is a community, whose population CPS has considered to be expendable. He concluded his remarks by asking “would this situation exist if NTA were an 80% white population school?” The CTU also released an additional statement on July 10.
CPS representative Chip Johnson shared that an update will be provided before the first day of school, and that CPS will continue gathering feedback from the community in the meantime. The presentations and FAQ documents shared by CPS to date may be found at www.cps.edu\nearsouth. If you have questions or concerns regarding the proposal, email CPS at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do you think?
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About the GSLA:
The Greater South Loop Association (GSLA) is a 501c3 non-profit organization founded in 1998. Our mission is to bring neighbors together to maintain and improve the South Loop as a vibrant, diverse, and inclusive community.