Take control of South Loop high schools
06/27/2012 10:00 PM
My daughter may be the only high school graduate from the heart of the South Loop whose high school diploma is from Wendell Phillips Academy, our South Loop “neighborhood” high school, which is in Bronzeville at 244 E. Pershing Road. She didn’t actually go to Phillips. None of the kids in the neighborhood do. She was a special education student who went to high school in Lincoln Park. But Chicago Public Schools’ tradition is to list the neighborhood school — the school the student presumably would have gone to had they not been in a special education program — on their diplomas.
That’s how we learned that Wendell Phillips was our neighborhood school. Until then, who knew? Who cared? As a recent letter to the editor stated on these pages, Phillips has “no diversity in its student population, test scores at the very bottom of the CPS scale and is a school in crisis and turnaround for over a decade.” All the South Loop high school kids go magnet or they go private. They don’t go Phillips.
When we moved to the neighborhood in 1994, that was pretty much the situation regarding South Loop Elementary, our neighborhood school a hop, skip and a jump from our new house at Roosevelt Road and State Street. But still, I feared that all the kids would be going there and that my daughter would be the only one having to take a bus to another school. Instead, had my daughter not been picked up each morning by a yellow school bus and transported elsewhere, she would have stuck out like a sore thumb. All the kids were being picked up and taken somewhere else. Kids in the neighborhood did not attend South Loop Elementary — very few parents even considered it. And there were so many school buses arriving to take South Loop kids to another school each morning, it was a confusing mass of yellow on the street. It’s a miracle no one ever got on the wrong bus.
Everyone knows what ultimately happened. South Loop neighborhood parents got sick of the situation, exerted some control and demanded more rigorous programming at South Loop Elementary. Brave and pioneering parents bit the bullet, enrolled their kids, and now, a few years later, SLES is known around the city as one of the premier schools. There was a turnaround.
Why the same thing can’t happen at Wendell Phillips, I don’t know. Do it again, South Loop parents: Bite the bullet, enroll your high schoolers en masse, exert control, make demands, keep a watch, arrange for safe transportation, keep a vigil and make a difference. Create the diversity, the academic standards and a new round of test scores. Do whatever you did at SLES. You have the experience and the know-how.
Having said that, South Loop parents seem to have another idea in mind for the future: keeping the old Jones high school standing and turning that into a neighborhood high school once the new and improved and very impressive Jones College Prep — a magnet that will serve the city as a whole — is completed next door. The original Jones, which was built in the 1960s as a commercial high school, and for the last few years became one of the city’s highly sought after and highly rated college prep magnet high schools, appears to be slated for demolition by the Public Building Commission.
The commission, which loves to see an old building neglected beyond repair, and become a serious hazard so they can go to town with the demolition, wants to tear down the old Jones, this delightful mid-century architectural landmark, to straighten out Harrison Street at State Street. Already, they are hinting about the enormous cost of renovating the old Jones, which has already undergone a recent renovation, to soften the blow when the bulldozers (which also cost quite a bit) come-a-calling.
Exactly how this straightening of Harrison would take place, I can’t figure out. Because one block west of the crookedness is Dearborn Street, where stands the 22-story, quite solidly built and landmarked Transportation Building, now a thriving condominium community. But then again, the PBC does love to condemn and deconstruct, so who knows.
CPS is in on disregarding the old Jones as a new neighborhood high school, too. According to Crain’s, CPS says there aren’t enough students to fill the seats in the old building with neighborhood high-schoolers, and that as a consolation, they will set aside 300 seats in the new school for neighborhood residents. Crain’s reports that there are at least 235 graduating students (if not more) in the area who will be ready for high school when the new school is completed and the old school is emptied. Assuming that a majority of those students would attend as freshmen, and continue for the next four years — and considering that more and more students would grow up in the South Loop because they wouldn’t have to move to the suburbs, I think in four years or less, the old Jones would fill up to capacity, which is 800-900 students. But even if it didn’t, why couldn’t the old building accommodate more students from around the city to attend Jones College Prep, if necessary? Is there a limit to the number of students a magnet program can take? Why not have plenty of space to assure that families with gifted students from all over city don’t run to the suburbs? In fact, with the real estate market the way it is, they may not be able to flee — and there will have to be good schools to accommodate them.
No matter how you slice it, the old Jones should stay put. The future is not just the year that the new Jones opens. The future is forever. And surely, there will be students from the neighborhood or students from outside the neighborhood who will want to go to Jones, whether the old school becomes a neighborhood school or part of the magnet. Either way, it will serve our neighborhood and we need the extra space in the extra building. The school will keep the exodus of families to a minimum. And maybe someday South Loop parents may be able to choose: Jones? Or Phillips? That would be nice.