Chicago delays disputed school closures plan after uproar

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Chicago officials will postpone the closure of several high schools in one of the city's highest-crime and most impoverished neighborhoods in response to a contentious community response, the nation's third-largest public school district announced Monday.

Initially, the district pitched closing four schools all at once this summer, displacing hundreds of students to out-of-neighborhood schools, and making way for a new $85 million school. But officials said they'd delay, closing one at the end of the school year to begin construction on the new facility and close the remaining three in three years so current students can graduate.

The initial closure plan faced intense criticism from neighborhood residents, students and activists who questioned student safety with teenagers having to cross gang boundaries, along with concerns about dropouts and further disinvestment in Englewood, a mostly African-American neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. School officials pitched the plan five years after shuttering about 50 schools, the largest mass school closure in an American city.

"Englewood students deserve a state-of-the-art high school and a world-class education, which is why we're excited to build an $85 million campus that will rival the city's best schools," Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said in a statement. "At the same time, we want to honor current students and their families, and we've heard that many of them want to be able to stay and graduate from their current schools. We're happy to adjust our plans to take their feedback into account, and we will continue to support these students with additional resources throughout the transition."

School officials argue a new school is still a better option for the neighborhood and cited low enrollment and dwindling population as key reasons for the closures. Roughly 500 students attend the four schools. CPS had proposed spending $8.5 million in the transition to different schools, including possibly transporting displaced students to nearby schools via shuttles.

The new school wasn't slated to open until the fall of 2019 with only freshmen at first.

Community meetings on the proposal turned emotional, with revived claims of racial politics and continued fallout from the 2013 closures, which mostly largely impacted minorities. Over one dozen schools have remained empty, continuing concerns about attracting crime and decreased property values.

Serious crime in the Englewood region remains high despite a significant drop there last year, when there were 48 homicides. In 2016, there were roughly 86 homicides.

Opponents of the district's plan, including the Chicago Teachers Union, said the changes didn't go far enough.

"Resources that CPS proposes to target to the proposed new high school should, in fact, have been targeted to Englewood's current public high schools," said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey in a statement. "Now CPS needs to take this a step further — by offering the real resources these schools deserve."

A school board vote on the new plan could take place as early as Feb. 28.


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