Controversy over location follows Chicago Arts High

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Facing a strong undercurrent of tension between traditional schools that feel threatened by new ones, Chicago High School for the Arts is once
again at the center of a controversy over space. Facing a strong undercurrent of tension between traditional schools that feel threatened by new ones, Chicago High School for the Arts is once again at the center of a controversy over space.

For the past two years, the city’s only public high school for the arts has been temporarily located at the old Pershing School at 3200 S. Calumet Ave. But, adding a class a year, it has outgrown that space and has spent the past year in limbo.

Now, CPS officials want Doolittle West, less than a mile from Chi Arts’ current location, to become the school’s new home. On Wednesday’s board agenda, members are scheduled to vote on the issue. Renovating the old elementary school to get it ready to house a specialty high school will cost $4.6 million, according to the board report.

The new plan has drawn the ire of local community groups and parents. The Bronzeville Community Council, comprised of clergy and representatives from community organizations, voted not to support it. Some are suspicious, believing that CPS’ grand plan is to hand over Doolittle East. Others are worried because there’s no definitive plan for where the two programs—a child parent center and a citywide parent resource center—currently housed in Doolittle East will relocate. 

Still others, such as the Grand Boulevard Federation, are against it because they feel as though CPS officials rammed the decision through without properly consulting or making the case to the community and parents.

Jitu Brown from the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization says that he cannot understand how CPS can commit to renovating a building for Chi Arts when it is the midst of a budget crisis. Last Wednesday, CPS’ Board of Education voted to rescind the 4 percent raises due to teachers and other staff on the premise that the district is facing a $712 million budget deficit.

“How can there be an investment in charter schools, an investment in turnaround schools, an investment in new schools and then a budget deficit?” he says. “It is questionable at best.”

CPS board members have already committed to spending $9 million for renovations for Urban Prep Charter School.

Calls to Chi Arts Principal Terri Milsap went unreturned. CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll, via e-mail, said that Doolittle West is a school and should be used as one. She also said

CPS officials are actively looking for a new space for the child parent center.

Doolittle West used to house a primary center, which fed into Doolittle East for the upper grades. A few years ago, Doolittle West students were moved into Doolittle East, making a comprehensive K – 8 elementary school.

Doolittle West was then handed over to a child parent center, which had been displaced from Donoghue Elementary when it was turned over to the University of Chicago for a charter school. The parent resource center also had been relocated twice previously.

Matt Johnson, a parent and community activist, says that when the preschool moved over to Doolittle West, the building was in bad condition. The principal and parents solicited donations and found money in other places to make the center a warm, inviting place.

Meanwhile, the parent-resource center has a brand-new technology center. Johnson says some 650 parents use the center on average each month, using the computers, coming to workshops and attending meetings.

Johnson says that CPS officials only include the numbers from the preschool in their figures on the school’s utilization and discount the use of the parent center.  

He also says that CPS officials won’t rule out taking Doolittle East and that he believes plans drawn up by an architect already include the elementary school and an underground path leading to it. Chi Arts officials have said that they will outgrow Doolittle West also in a matter of a few years, Johnson says.

Brown notes that Doolittle has been a receiving school for other schools closed down by CPS. And some parents have had children displaced in the past.

“There has been enough harm in the mid-South region,” he says.

Brown’s understanding is that Ald. Pat Dowell has offered Chi Arts vacant land or an empty school building. He suspects that people at Chi Arts don’t want to move too deep into the neighborhood and would rather be at Doolittle, which is close to King Drive.

“They can quickly jump on the King [Avenue] bus and be out of the community,” he says.

Earlean Green, a Marshall High School local school council member who frequents the parent resource center, says she feels as though it was a done deal by the time it was presented to parents. She went to a community meeting two weeks ago, which she was only told about the day before.

The late notice, she suspects, was deliberate to keep the community from organizing. 

 

Chicago High School for the Arts has been dealing with this turmoil for a while. Originally, Chi Arts was to move to Lafayette Elementary School in Humboldt Park. Then, there was some talk of it going to Wells High School in West Town. Wells, a struggling neighborhood high school, has lost 45 percent of its student population since 2005.

But that also fell through at least partly because parents of Chi Arts students were worried about their children mixing with the Wells High School crowd.