Ald. Dowell Supports CPS Proposal for New Elementary, High School to Serve Chicago’s Near South Side

 

Chicago, IL – Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd) has issued the following statement on CPS’ proposal to construct a new building for South Loop Elementary School and provide a new neighborhood high school in Chicago’s near south side.

(click here for a PDF version of the statement)

“First, I would like to thank CPS, the Chicago Board of Education, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, CPS CEdO Dr. Janice Jackson and all of the education stakeholders in my community who have come together to finally address two longstanding educational issues in the near south side – the overcrowding at South Loop Elementary School and the lack of a neighborhood high school. The new elementary school building and new high school will provide a continuous K-12 neighborhood educational option for tens of thousands of Chicago residents. I’m happy that CPS has proposed a viable option to solve these two problems.

“Before getting into the history of this issue, I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the false accusations that this proposal is racially discriminatory. I take personal offense to these claims. Nothing can be further from the truth and using this characterization is offensive. What this proposal does is create an EVEN MORE integrated school community by combining two elementary school populations that are both majority minority. Yes NTA is 80% African-American, but it’s important to remember that South Loop Elementary is 43% African-American, 13% Asian, 10% Hispanic, 8% other and 26% white. It is also a majority minority school. The characterization that CPS is closing a minority school to benefit a white school is just plain false. What I refuse to do is open a brand new neighborhood elementary school using the current boundaries for South Loop Elementary which would effectively shut out largely low-income African-American residents from having the option to attend a new high performing local elementary school. That is unacceptable. The revised boundaries reverse a terrible history of dividing neighborhoods based on race. The new boundaries are in fact far more inclusive than the current ones for the community. Moreover, the new neighborhood high school will also be incredibly diverse, pulling from majority African-American, Asian and white communities. This is the type of student diversity we should strive for in all of our schools.

“For years, the number one question I heard from my residents in the South Loop has been ‘what can we do about the overcrowding at South Loop Elementary School and when are we going to get a high school?’ I have heard countless stories from residents about how so many of their friends and neighbors were forced to leave the city in search of a high school for their children. And I know that for decades residents have unsuccessfully worked with the city to get a neighborhood high school for the community. Despite this unresolved issue, the local elementary school flourished. So much that it has been overcrowded for many years. Music rooms, libraries, science labs – hallways even! – are currently being used as classrooms.

“Seeing this need, I worked with community stakeholders, CPS and the Mayor’s office to address the overcrowding issue. I had individual meetings, group planning sessions and public meetings to identify potential solutions that would accommodate the needs of the growing South Loop community. Through this process, one clear solution came forward, constructing a new, 1200 seat elementary school at the site of the old post office building at 16th and Dearborn Street. This was the only contiguous, controllable and affordable option within the neighborhood boundary and I put my full support behind this plan.

“With a plan identified for South Loop Elementary School, CPS saw an opportunity to solve the neighborhood high school issue as well. The construction of a new building for South Loop Elementary School, combined with the existing capacity of the old building offers more than enough elementary school seats for the entire South Loop community. No longer would one neighborhood be split in two along the arbitrary 18th St. boundary line. The new dual campus could accommodate all NTA and South Loop Elementary students in a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility. This would then allow CPS to convert the existing National Teachers Academy (NTA) building into a neighborhood high school. The benefits of this plan are enormous.

“First and foremost, this proposal is the most academically positive option. While both schools provide a high-quality education for their students, South Loop Elementary is consistently rated one of the very top elementary schools in the entire City of Chicago. All prospective students at the new school will have the opportunity to enjoy that academic rigor. And throughout the transition process, the positive climate and culture shown at NTA will be integrated into the new school by keeping students together, ensuring familiar faces are available there to welcome students and by offering targeted programs to build on the successes shown at NTA. Furthermore, combining the previously separate elementary schools would allow for greater community integration, not just for the students, but for the parents and the entire community. What has become increasingly apparent through the community process is that the two school communities are relatively separate despite the fact they are both located within the South Loop. This merger would break down these barriers for a more inclusive, diverse neighborhood. In addition, neighborhood high school students would now have an easily accessible, quality option right in their community. The high school would be incredibly diverse, pulling from the South Loop, GAP, Chinatown, Armour Square and Bridgeport neighborhoods. This is something that is very important for me in advocating for a neighborhood high school option. Finally, this plan can be executed at a fraction of the cost of constructing a new neighborhood high school which is an important factor in today’s day of tight budgets.

“This proposal solves all of these issues in a way that no other proposal does. That is why I am supporting CPS’ plan to build a new elementary school building at the corner of 16th and Dearborn Streets and convert National Teachers Academy into a neighborhood high school.

“I also would like to address the rumors that certain members of our community were shut out of this process. That is completely untrue. Well before this proposal was created, CPS and I hosted a series of meetings with stakeholders regarding the educational issues facing students in the South Loop community. NTA Principal Isaac Castelaz, South Loop Principal Tara Shelton and representatives of both of the school communities attended multiple meetings with me directly, members of CPS staff and even a board member from the Chicago Board of Education. I want to make this perfectly clear, NTA representatives had many opportunities to discuss this issue, including when:

  • They met with me and a Chicago Board of Education member in May 2016
  • I hosted a Town Hall meeting in July 2016 on this issue specifically
  • I hosted another Town Hall meeting in November 2016 at NTA
  • I met personally with NTA parents in March 2017 on the boundary proposal
  • I hosted a subsequent Town Hall meeting in April 2017 on this issue
  • They had a personal meeting with CPS Chief of Education Dr. Janice Jackson

That all occurred well before this proposal came out and even before CPS scheduled 3 public meetings on this issue or the issue had been voted on by the Chicago Board of Education.

“To that end, I would also like to thank CPS for hosting an open, transparent and thoughtful community process for this proposal. This process, which dates back to well before CPS even conceived of the current proposal, has been open to all members of the community and has resulted in real, positive changes to the way CPS is addressing the education issues facing the near south community. No group has been shut out of this process and all voices have been heard and had their ideas seriously considered.  Due to the feedback at these various meetings, the original proposal was changed substantially to answer community concerns. For example:

Keeping Students Together

Many parents were worried the transition to a new school would be hard on their student, or that they would not have the opportunity to go to the new South Loop Elementary school. CPS has pledged that all students who currently attend NTA or South Loop Elementary School will be able to attend the new school, whether or not they live within the school’s boundary. In addition, the vast majority students at NTA will be able to continue to attend and graduate from NTA before having the option to enroll in the new neighborhood high school. The regional gifted center students would also stay in class together as the community transitions to the new school building. No one will be forced to send their child to new school miles away from their current school.

Longer Phase-In for the High School

Parents voiced their concerns about the original proposed timeline for the phase-in of a new high school at the NTA campus, stating a longer transition period would be beneficial for current students. CPS adjusted the phase-in period for the new high school so that rising NTA 4th – 8th graders in the 2019-20 school year would stay at NTA. The rising PreK – 3rd graders in the 2019-20 school year would transition with their peers to South Loop Elementary. Rising 2nd – 8th grade students can continue at NTA while only rising PreK and 1st grade students would transition to South Loop Elementary.

Transportation

Parents who live close to NTA raised the issue that South Loop is further away than their existing school. In addition, many parents had multiple children that would be split between the two campuses making timely drop off difficult. In response, CPS is instituting a plan that would provide transportation between the two campuses. That way, regardless of which school the family is closer to, the appropriate school can be accessed easily.

Use of the Current South Loop Campus

The original plan presented by CPS did not contain any information regarding the future of the current South Loop Elementary School campus. Hearing the concerns of the community regarding expected future population increases, CPS has decided to continue to use the building located at 1212 S. Plymouth Ct. to house the lower grade neighborhood elementary school students.

Joint Transition to New School

The original plan presented by CPS called for South Loop Elementary School students to transition to the new campus before the NTA children were given the opportunity to move to the new school. The revised proposal has each school transitioning to the new school simultaneously.

“These changes clearly show that CPS is willing to make significant adjustments to their proposal as a result of the community process. While not all ideas or suggestions can be accommodated, CPS’ outreach effort was done in earnest and has resulted in real positive change to the original near south educational plan.

“I am committed to continuing to work with the community on improving this plan to best address the needs of our children. To that end, I am requesting that CPS study the following ideas to see if they can be incorporated into the framework:

  • Extending the neighborhood boundaries of the new South Loop Elementary School south to I-55
  • Announce and publish in writing the boundaries of the new neighborhood high school in the 2018/2019 school year
  • Establish in writing a clear transition plan for students and families that will create a welcoming climate and culture at the new South Loop Elementary School
  • Identify key staff and teachers from NTA to transition with students to the new South Loop Elementary School and high school
  • Ensure continued access to existing Park District programs for students

“I understand select parents do not agree with this proposal. I respect their opinions and have always been open and available to suggestions on how to improve education for all students in my ward. What I do not stand for though is the status quo. As we have throughout this process, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide for our children’s educational future. I refuse to let it slip away. This proposal, unlike any other idea presented, solves the important issues at hand for the children and families of my ward. I am proud to support its implementation.”

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