With new mayor on horizon, Chinatown parents resume push for Near South Side high school

Chicago families are deep into admissions season, with some students already set on a high school and others still searching for the right fit.

But in Chinatown, the process reminds parents of an option their eighth-graders lack access to: a high-performing neighborhood high school that they don’t have to compete for.

With plans for a neighborhood high school still up in the air, Chalkbeat Chicago recently visited the neighborhood and sat down with parents, Local School Council members, and community residents to talk about schools. The visit was the first of our “office hours” series, where we meet with community residents in community spaces and listen to what they have to say about public education where they live.

“The fight now is still for a high school,” Chinatown resident David Wu said,  “for the kids who couldn’t get into selective enrollment schools.”

Related: What happens when students don’t get their first-choice Chicago high school

Wu said getting into one of the city’s 11 selective enrollment high schools is “everyone’s dream whether you’re an immigrant or been here for a long time,” but the competitive slots are limited so Chinatown students are scattered across the city. “We don’t have one high school that community agencies can work together to invest and pour into.”

Chinatown’s longstanding call for a new high school is one of the many community education issues that Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot will have to wrestle with. Earlier this month, Lightfoot signaled that she’ll be looking for solutions to help Chinatown residents. She pledged to back their push for a neighborhood high school.  

That message was welcome news to a Chinatown community education committee called the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, which organized to push for a high school and hopes to reboot its efforts once Lightfoot takes office.

“We have great community engagement,” said Raquel Don, a Local School Council member at Ward Elementary School and a member of the committee. “But the decision-makers have to commit to putting a high school here, so we can hold them to that.”

Related: Lori Lightfoot is Chicago’s next mayor — which means big changes are coming to schools

In the conversation with Chalkbeat reporters, Chinatown advocates praised the neighborhood’s high-quality elementary school options, and the community groups, LSCs, parents and dedicated teachers who support them.

But residents criticized the district for being slow to respond to the unique language and cultural needs of Chinatown’s growing immigrant population. They said they’d like to see school communications for parents prepared in Chinese, Chinese-English curriculum, and more Chinese-American teachers. Five percent of the district’s student population is Asian.

And, of course, we heard a lot about the ongoing need for a new high school.

Last year, the neighborhood appeared to have finally secured a new high school nearby. Chicago Public Schools announced a plan to close National Teachers’ Academy, a high-performing elementary school prized by the black community, and remake it into a high school. A judge granted an injunction halting the closure, signaling that a civil rights lawsuit filed by four black parents had merit. The district scuttled the high school plan.

Chinatown advocates learned a lesson from the debacle, which pitted their interests against those of the predominantly black NTA community, whose school was top-rated and a pillar of pride for families. Parents from one marginalized community felt like they were forced to compete against another marginalized community also fighting for the best interests of its children. Chinatown parents said they won’t make that mistake again.

“It was tough seeing parents and teachers pour their hearts out,” said Anita Jones, a black Chinatown parent and a bus monitor at Haines who serves on Chinatown’s education committee. “I felt their pain and our pain.”

Chinatown advocates emphasized the need to build more bridges across both racial and class divisions with their Near South Side neighbors. In the future, they would  like to see more collective deliberations about what families on the Near South Side need, before neighbors approach the district with demands or the district comes up with a plan that affects them.

“You need the politicians and the capital funding to come together,” said Warren Chin, an LSC member and parent at Healey Elementary School. “And somehow all the communities have to unite as one and say this is what we want.”

One aim with the push for a new Chinatown-serving high school, as several parents pointed out, is to provide a desirable option other than selective enrollment high schools, which accept a limited number of applicants through a competition that some critics call stressful and inequitable.

Parents want a new high school to offer high-demand programs like vocational education, to advanced placement, and a science, technology, engineering and math focus.

Chinatown residents and organizers said they intend to keep pressure on decision-makers. Don said that the school district should consider the nearby Bridgeport community for a new high school.  

The Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, whose education committee many of the parents sit on, also sees an opportunity in a high-profile real estate development planned for a 62-acre swath between Chinatown and the South Loop. The City Council recently approved a $700 million tax subsidy for the massive project, dubbed “The 78th,” because the developers behind it, Related Midwest, have billed it as Chicago’s 78th community area.

The project is moving forward at a time when community groups, activists and some city lawmakers are increasingly pressing developers to include community benefits like affordable housing in development agreements that include public tax subsidies and other incentives. The Coalition For a Better Chinese American Community hopes to insert schools into the conversation.

Relate: The tension between Chicago enrollment declines and new schools

Chinatown, a growing community, also continues its push for a new high school campus amid broader population declines at a district whose enrollment drops by thousands every year, a loss fueled by an exodus of black families from the city, stagnate Latino immigration into the city, and declining birth rates. The district has had to wrestle with the tension between calls for new schools in growing neighborhoods and calls for support at neighborhood schools losing population and in fear of closure.

Until the new high school is a reality, Chinatown parents stressed the need for investment in their current options such as Kelly High School, which has more Asian students than most other district schools and offers language services for Chinese students.

But Kelly is also overcrowded, several miles southwest of Chinatown and rated Level 2, the district’s second-lowest rating for schools. There isn’t a top-rated neighborhood high school within three miles of Chinatown — although Chinatown is moving increasingly southwest, closer to Kelly.

Chinatown advocates highlighted one major challenge to pressing the city for neighborhood improvements: The community is split among several different wards, diluting its political leverage against any one alderman.

Yet the community does has a history of organizing for social infrastructure like parks and libraries, but many of those victories were a long time coming.

David Wu remembers when he used to attend community meetings related to Chinatown leaders’ push during the ’90s for Tom Ping Park, one of the only large green spaces in the neighborhood. The park was established in 1999, but not finished; it took more than a decade for the city to build a fieldhouse there and other final touches.

By that time, Wu’s own children were older, and not much into playing in the park. Wu and other Chinatown residents said their push for a new high school can’t wait a generation to come to fruition.

“Hopefully our campaign is not for their grandkids,” he said.