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Rep. Mah will block proposed high school’s capital funds until officials deal with community concerns

Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022 - Posted by Isabel Miller

* The Sun-Times

State Rep. Theresa Mah, who has long backed the construction of a Near South Side high school, says she will block $50 million in state funding from the project until Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools officials take community concerns more seriously.

City officials nonetheless say they are moving forward with key votes Wednesday to advance the proposal and are still counting on state funding coming through.

Mah, a Chicago Democrat, said she wants to see authentic community engagement and a stronger, “good faith” effort to find an alternative site before she considers backing the district’s plan again. The school is slated to be built on former public housing land at 24th and State streets.

Her move came hours after the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ reported that senior CPS officials warned leaders last year that a new Near South high school could undermine nearby Black schools and ultimately harm Black students — a vastly different story than Lightfoot and district officials have told publicly.

* Mah’s concerns

Primary among my concerns was the proximity to existing schools, whose decline in enrollment would be accelerated —a concern that was also cited in a confidential internal memo by CPS officials but ignored by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS leadership as they press forward with this plan.

I also expressed my objection to the dynamic that would be set up, in which it would appear as though the Chinatown community were in favor of taking away land previously promised as a site for affordable housing for former CHA residents. This could not be further from the truth. If the mayor and CPS truly listened to community members, they would understand that it is possible for advocates to be for a new high school but not support their currently proposed site.

Community members have long sought a high school to serve the Chinatown, Bridgeport and South Loop communities. This area has seen tremendous population growth, a significant portion of that due to new immigration from China. The need for a new school is not simply about having one in close proximity, although that is an important consideration given studies that have shown a disproportionate number of students commuting long distances to attend high school. […]

The more urgent need, however, is to have a school that provides the bilingual staffing and language supports for English learners, who make up a significant portion of this area’s population. A new school that truly serves this community has to have robust bilingual or dual language programming and cultural competency, to communicate with these immigrant families to help them thrive.

* Ald. Pat Dowell and Ald. Nicole Lee support the school’s construction

Despite a strong and growing elementary school population in the area, students across the Near South Side lack an open enrollment high school option and are forced to travel well outside of their neighborhoods to attend school. This has a significant impact on the well-being of families in these communities — which include Armour Square, Bridgeport, Chinatown, Douglas and South Loop — as they travel sometimes more than an hour to attend parent-teacher conferences, sporting events, and performances at their kids’ schools.

This distance also creates barriers for students who must choose between getting home at a decent hour or participating in after-school activities. Imagine what students could do with their time if they were to get several hours a week back that otherwise would be spent on transportation to and from schools outside their communities.

This geographical chasm can also inhibit parents and families from being involved in their children’s educational experience. It becomes a lot more difficult to volunteer or attend activities at school when you have to travel significant distances to do so. Family and community involvement in school is linked to more positive outcomes for students, and the families on the Near South Side deserve the opportunity to participate in full. […]

While the need is clear, we know that discussion around this historic opportunity also elicited a set of questions among community members. For some, the proposed location at 24th and State raised questions about the Chicago Housing Authority’s commitments to public and affordable housing in connection with the site. These remain intact. And, as alderpersons serving these communities, we are prepared to hold CHA accountable to ensure they come through on those commitments in full.

* Sharp contrast to what the Sun-Times dug up

City and schools officials have publicly promised their plan to build a new $120 million public high school on Chicago’s Near South Side won’t cause significant harm to nearby historically Black schools that fear they’ll lose students and funding.

But that rosy outlook repeatedly touted by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, schools chief Pedro Martinez and other city leaders is vastly different than what a foreboding district analysis showed last year.

The Sun-Times and WBEZ have learned a team of senior officials at Chicago Public Schools privately warned leaders that the project could undermine those schools and ultimately hurt Black students.

They wrote in a confidential memo that their preliminary analysis showed a new school would “accelerate the enrollment declines in several nearby schools, causing the schools to be constrained financially and academically in providing an equitable learning experience to all students.”

* Mayoral candidate Buckner wants to change how Chicago Public Schools calculates funding

Mayoral hopeful Kambium “Kam” Buckner is promising to transform Chicago Public Schools by funding schools based on need, not enrollment; staffing every school with a nurse, librarian, and social worker; and expanding universal preschool to all 3-year-olds. […]

“As mayor, I will continue to work with Springfield to hold CPS accountable for directing state funds to schools based on need, and not on any other criteria,” Buckner said, adding that funding should not be strictly based on enrollment.

Currently, schools get a set amount of money per student, plus a few centrally-funded positions, such as principal and school clerk. This system – implemented in the wake of the 2013 closings – has been criticized by the Chicago Teachers Union because it penalizes schools with fewer students and sets them on a downward spiral of declining enrollment and disinvestment. Others – including former CPS CEO Janice Jackson – have said the method is more equitable because money follows students. […]

The plan outlined on Thursday also calls for an external audit of CPS special education practices to improve services, a leadership academy for principals to address morale, and targeted recruitment for teachers from Chicago communities.


  1. - Wardster - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 10:44 am:

    Chuy is just flexing at this point

  2. - Merica - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 10:50 am:

    Lollapalooza? nah, blow it up. $50M new high school? no thanks, please blow it up.

    Spread misery and poverty everywhere

  3. - JS Mill - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 11:17 am:

    =says she will block $50 million in state funding from the project=

    Wow, I wish my legislators were not so busy fighting CRT and tilting at windmills and would secure some of that for our district.

  4. - Friendly Bob Adams - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 11:23 am:

    Just exactly does a single member of the General Assembly block funding for a specific project? Not sure how that works.

  5. - City Zen - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 11:28 am:

    ==directing state funds to schools based on need, and not on any other criteria==

    “Why base school funding on measurable terms when you can instead use highly subjective ones with zero accountability?” asked the mayoral candidate.

  6. - supplied_demand - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 11:32 am:

    If we consolidate more schools, then we can guarantee each one has a nurse, librarian, and social worker. Keeping severely under-enrolled schools open doesn’t help the kids.

  7. - Google Is Your Friend - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 11:38 am:

    - Friendly Bob Adams - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 11:23 am:

    Mah is the person who secured the funds in the first place.

  8. - Lakeshore East Resident - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 12:01 pm:

    The Black Caucus in city council better set up a meeting with Rep. Mah…

    Shame on Pat Dowell for being on the wrong side of this issue

  9. - ChicagoBars - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 12:07 pm:

    I can’t recall a CPS school opening decision ever going sideways like this? Sure, the Rahm v CTU school closing fights were bitter but a donnybrook over a proposed brand new school?

    Anybody remember a new school battle in Cook County anything like this?

  10. - CT Guy - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 12:11 pm:


    This is the reboot of the NTA to South Loop conversion (which is like a 1-2 minute walk from the proposed site) where the city/CPS backed down.

  11. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 12:17 pm:

    ===Anybody remember a new school battle in Cook County anything like this? ===

    Well, has anyone proposed taking CHA land to build a school without buy-in?

  12. - BC - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 1:23 pm:

    == Anybody remember? ==

    Yes. Rahm’s plan to build a new selective enrollment high school on the Near North Side and name it after Barack Obama. Big controversy over it being elitist and expensive, which eventually killed it.

    This actually points to a much bigger problem in CPS — the emptying out of big legacy high schools. Schools like CVS, Austin, Fenger, Tilden, and others that used to enroll up to 3,000 students, now struggle to attract 300. Lots of causes: depopulation, charter schools, open enrollment policies that result in only 25 percent of students attending their neighborhood high school, ect. No simple solutions.

  13. - cermak_rd - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 1:50 pm:


    The problem with consolidating schools is now children must travel further to school, possibly over streets or into neighborhoods that are dangerous to them. Rahm consolidated some and got serious pushback. All it takes is for 1 student to be killed because he’s on the “wrong” block and people will be raving mad.

  14. - Google Is Your Friend - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 2:33 pm:

    - ChicagoBars - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 12:07 pm:

    Mt. Greenwood tried to kill the Ag School

  15. - low level - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 3:20 pm:

    Rep Mah secured the funding but its been appropriated already yes? The only person that could block it is the governors office, no?

  16. - Shytown - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 4:01 pm:

    == The Black Caucus in city council better set up a meeting with Rep. Mah… ==

    Seriously “lakeshore east resident”? How about starting with ald dowell - who is black btw - and it’s in her ward. Probably not the best idea for Mah to meet with that caucus because they’d likely tell her to butt out.

  17. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 4:10 pm:

    ===they’d likely tell her to butt out===

    Can’t do that because she has a brick on the cash.


  18. - DuPage - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 4:15 pm:

    A 30-million-dollar gift from the state? What about using CPS building fund bonds, like school districts elsewhere have to do. It seems like it has always been this way, though. If a suburban school district wants a new high school, they hold a referendum and district voters have to pass a tax hike on themselves. CPS should do the same.

  19. - Shytown - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 4:28 pm:

    Rich, can she really put on a brick on it though? That seems to have been the practice in the past, but I thought it might be a little different now…maybe not lol

  20. - the working poor - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 4:51 pm:

    i am glad Mah is taking a stand on this. the compromise of finding a new location in the area seems rather simple after a google maps search.

  21. - low level - Wednesday, Sep 28, 22 @ 9:32 pm:

    Good for Alderman Dowell. A high school has been talked about for 20+ years in the area. Glad she is pushing to get it done.

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