New high school plan still has some South Side residents feeling neglected

New proposed boundaries for Near South High School has garnered praise from some community members. But not everybody looks at the map and feels like a winner.

That much was clear Tuesday night during a Chicago Public Schools public hearing about the attendance boundaries at Second Presbyterian Church in the South Loop. 

Some 100 people filled the pews. They included Gap community residents praising their inclusion in the high school’s updated boundaries, which they pushed for at a CPS hearing last month. But supporters of National Teachers Academy blasted the planned school for displacing their top-rated, predominantly black elementary school near the corner of State Street and Cermak Road. They accused CPS of discriminating against the school, exacerbating gentrification, and of trying to divide the black community by adding the Gap community to the new high school’s attendance area.

“Let’s not let them divide us, because together we stand, and divided we fall,” said Olivia Shelton, the grandmother of an NTA student. “We must all stand together for our children.”

Others whose children could attend the new high school praised the plan.

“I support the boundaries because I believe our community believes in CPS,” said Gap resident Kevin Stanciel, citing his family’s positive experiences with schools like Whitney Young, Disney, and Alcott and thanking the school district for including his community in the Near South High School attendance area.

But residents of Bridgeport, Canaryville, and Armor Square felt left out of the plan.

Proposed boundaries for Near South High School. Families living in boundaries for Armor and Holden Elementary schools will receive preference for available seats, according to CPS. (Chicago Public Schools)

Principal Katherine Chuu noted that her students from Armor Elementary School would receive preference for unfilled seats at the new high school, but wouldn’t be guaranteed admission.

Like others in the cluster of South Side neighborhoods, she said area elementary school students need options for quality neighborhood high schools when they graduate. Parents and community members said that existing high schools weren’t acceptable choices.

What about Phillips and Tilden?

Some speakers during the public comment period defended two existing neighborhood high schools that could be affected by a new building in their enrollment area.

Audrey Johnson, the mother of a recent Phillips Academy High School grad, said the Near South High School will eat into the attendance area for Phillips, a Level 2 school already struggling to attract students and investment from CPS. Phillips has an ideal capacity for 2,000 students, but only has 630 students, most black and from low-income households, according to CPS. In 2017, the latest year for which numbers available, about 60 percent of Phillips’ seniors graduated, compared with the district average of 74 percent.

Johnson said the school suffers from a bad reputation and is avoided by middle-class and non-black families — but that it has made strides and needs more investment in academics like world languages to draw in more students.

“Don’t fail us like that,” she told the school board. “Put some money in Phillips.”

She wasn’t alone in speaking out for under-enrolled neighborhood high schools. She was joined by Ald. Patrick D. Thompson, whose ward includes parts of Bridgeport, Armour Square, and Canaryville, which borders Tilden Career Community Academy High School.  Tilden’s student body is black and Latino, mostly students from low-income households, and about half of its senior class graduated in 2017, according to CPS.

Thompson said Tilden is woefully under-enrolled, with about 250 students in a building that could hold 2,000. Yet, the Near South High School could further erode Tilden’s student body, he said.

“[The boundaries] are not helping everybody, and in fact it’s hurting kids more than it’s helping,” he said.”All of us are asking CPS to take a look at these boundaries again.”

CPS maintains that it has tried its best to respond to the area’s call for a high-quality high school, and a spokesman said CPS would continue working with the community “to ensure the new school meets the needs of all local families.”