Chicago High School for the Arts: A good fit for Humboldt Park?

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It is 4 o’clock on a Wednesday, and the wide halls of Lafayette Elementary echo with competing melodies from cellos, violas and violins engaged in orchestra practice. Lafayette’s sprawling campus is home to one of the largest elementary school orchestras in the city, but its students only fill a third of the building. That’s about to change, when 300 students from the Chicago High School for the Arts move in and begin sharing the campus in September. Lafayette’s sprawling campus is home to one of the largest elementary school orchestras in the city, but its students only fill a third of the building. That’s about to change, when 300 students from the Chicago High School for the Arts move in and begin sharing the campus in September.

The School Board has approved the move of ChiArts, a Renaissance 2010 school and the city’s only public high school for the arts. In fall 2009, the school opened at a temporary location on the South Side, but officials say Lafayette, in East Humboldt Park, will be its permanent home.

Staff members from both of the schools say they are excited about the merger. But some activists in the surrounding neighborhood are not. Their complaint is familiar among grassroots groups that question the impact of the district’s Renaissance 2010 plan: Another new school moves in, but is not designed to serve neighborhood children first.

Chi Arts attracted 900 candidates for the first 150 seats in its intensive program, which runs from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. According to school officials, the selected students hail from 44 of the city’s 50 wards. Enrollment is about 20 percent white, half black and a third Latino. About half of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. At Lafayette, the school will expand and add 150 kids and another grade level each year until it reaches its 600-student capacity. Officials say they will strive to maintain diversity.

Lafayette’s local school council supports the move, says Principal Trisha Shrode. Jim Mabie, a member of the ChiArts board of directors, believes Lafayette will be a good fit.

“They have a very vibrant music program, which fits well with our work. And the neighborhood is very good,” Mabie says. Lafayette is part of the district’s fine arts magnet cluster program, and receives an extra arts teacher paid for by the board.

Three graduating 8th-graders from Lafayette will attend ChiArts in the fall, and Shrode says the three are excited to be able to stay in the same building and see familiar faces.

But some community organizations are hesitant to embrace the school. One of the biggest complaints is that they do not feel Chi Arts reached out to them enough, says Christy Prahl, a community organizer for Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation of Humboldt Park, says a common complaint is that the school failed to reach out to them. Bickerdike is a non-profit community development organization.

Raul Echevarria of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center says his members worry that the school will be reserved for students who have had private training or who come from higher economic brackets.

Mabie says that in the coming months, ChiArts will make every effort to work with the community, hosting open houses and auditions in the neighborhood. About half of the seats at ChiArts are reserved for students who have not had outside training in a particular discipline.

The neighborhood has experienced an influx of Renaissance 2010 schools, and Prahl fears these schools will absorb resources and funding from CPS, to the detriment of neighborhood schools.

“I worry about the imbalance in the attention CPS gives charter, contract, and performance schools over the neighborhood schools. The best and brightest go to schools like ChiArts. But what happens to the kids who can’t, who are stuck in the classrooms of 37 students?” Prahl says.