What’s going on with Chicago’s Near South Side High School plan?

The proposed site for a new CPS high school, a vacant lot at 24th and State streets where the former Harold L. Ickes Homes sat, as seen from above the Near South Side on July 26, 2022. (Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago)

This story was originally published by Block Club Chicago.

A controversial plan for a new Near South Side high school appears to have stalled.

Families on the Near South Side and Chinatown have been asking for a dedicated community high school for years, as many families say students are forced to travel across the city to attend selective-enrollment schools that offer classes and extracurriculars nearby high schools lack.

In 2018, plans to convert National Teacher’s Academy, 55 W. Cermak Road, into a high school were scrapped after outcry from families and NTA staff. Instead, a $150 million school was proposed for the former Harold Ickes Homes site near 24th and State streets on the Near South Side.

That plan was met with criticism from Bronzeville and Chinatown neighbors who opposed building the school on public housing land. It has also drawn accusations of backroom deals and prompted backlash toward Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Housing Authority, and City Hall leaders.

Now, officials are being quiet about the status of the school, and a website that served as an information hub for the proposed high school has been taken down.

“We’ve been given no update yet, but as far as I know, everything is pretty much still status quo. I’m still committed to making this happen,” Ald. Nicole Lee (11th) told Block Club.

A Board of Education vote to approve a capital budget for the project was originally set for June 2023 but was pulled pending further review, sources said at the time. It’s unclear what the next steps are.

In a statement, a CPS spokesperson said the website was “currently paused,” but more information would eventually be shared.

“The Near South High School proposal is still under review as the District develops long-term strategies and objectives through work on the CPS Educational Facilities Master Plan and Five-Year Strategic Plan,” district officials said in a statement.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office did not respond to requests for comment. During his campaign, Johnson pledged to enforce a moratorium on building anything on public housing land, but it is unclear whether he supports the school proposal.

A month after the stalled school board vote, Johnson replaced all but one board member and named Jianan Shi school board president. Shi, previously with parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand, was part of a coalition of residents calling for the high school to be built elsewhere.

The Chicago skyline is seen with a large green grass open lot in the foreground. A large blue sky in the background.
The proposed site for a new CPS high school is a vacant lot at 24th and State Streets, where the former Harold L. Ickes Homes sat. (Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago)

The story so far

Near South Side neighbors and elected officials have long fought for a community high school in the area, saying the lack of options for the growing population has forced students to travel up to two hours to other neighborhoods.

But many of those proponents have pushed CPS to consider other sites for the school. They suggested The 78 megadevelopment, or a plot between 17th and 18th and Canal and Stewart Avenues. They also suggested repurposing Jones College Prep into a neighborhood school.

The Illinois Answers Project reported last year that CHA, CPS, and city officials had homed in on the Harold Ickes Homes site by July 2021, maintaining to the public there were no other viable locations for the school.

School board members narrowly voted in September 2022 to buy the land at 23rd Street and Wabash Avenue for $10.3 million for the school. They also approved a land swap deal with the CHA: The district would lease land at 24th and State for the high school, and the housing agency would get the deed for the Wabash land to complete the Southbridge residential development, allowing some of the families displaced by the demolition of the Ickes Homes to return.

The school would accommodate 1,200 students from the community, 30% of them Black. It would be a feeder school for nine surrounding elementary schools: Armour, National Teachers Academy, Drake, Healy, Ward J, Holden, Smyth, Haines, and South Loop.

An ad hoc committee consisting of parents, community leaders, and district staff was formed in November 2022 to guide CPS families through the process. The following month, the City Council approved $8 million in tax-increment financing dollars to buy some of the land involved in the swap. The ad hoc committee launched a series of virtual meetings in January 2023 to get community input and was to meet twice a month ahead of the scheduled board vote.

People Matter co-founder Angela Lin talks ahead of a 2022 protest opposing the controversial proposal to build a new $150 million high school on Chicago's Near South Side. (Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago)

Following the land swap, Rep. Theresa Mah vowed to withdraw the $50 million in state funding she helped secure because of the city’s refusal to compromise with neighbors who wanted to explore alternate sites.

Mah told Block Club earlier this month she hasn’t had a chance to speak with Johnson’s administration on the issue, but she remains firm on finding a compromise that doesn’t involve using public housing land.

“I want to revisit it, and I still believe we should consider another site because it doesn’t make sense to stick with a site so many are opposed to,” Mah said. The funding for the school will be reappropriated in the meantime, she said.

Other opponents were concerned about the siphoning of resources from other nearby high schools, including Wendell Phillips and Dunbar Vocational Academy — two predominantly Black schools that have suffered budget cuts in recent years.

Organizers from the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, Lugenia Burns Hope Center, People Matter, and the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community held a series of City Hall protests and town halls after the land swap agreement, some of them calling on former Mayor Lori Lightfoot to do away with the plan altogether.

“We have not heard any news,” said Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community. “We are in the process of trying to figure out who in CPS we should talk to about this. It is unclear who is leading the planning of the Near South high school, or if anyone is.”

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