A proposed $120 million Near South Side high school is moving closer to reality, with the Chicago Board of Education set to consider purchasing land and commissioning design services Wednesday, despite objections from neighborhood groups.

The board is slated to vote on buying property at 23rd Street and Wabash Avenue for $10.3 million to exchange with the Chicago Housing Authority, which would lease to the board a 1.7-acre site at 2450 S. State St. for the high school. Also, the board will weigh authorizing the Public Building Commission to perform project planning and design services to the tune of $5 million.

It’s unclear how much support the plan has among members of the board, which underwent a shake-up this summer. The proposal was pulled from the agenda of the June board meeting, where several members raised concerns. Since then, three new board members have been picked by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who is pushing for the new school despite its mixed response from neighbors.

Chinatown leaders say the school, which would serve South Loop, Chinatown and Bridgeport students, is desperately needed in an area that has seen significant growth. Others say Chicago Public Schools should focus on the schools it already has, especially amid declining enrollment.

Lugenia Burns Hope Center Executive Director Roderick Wilson is among those who are adamant that the school should not be built at the proposed location — once home to the Ickes Homes public housing complex. That site should be reserved for the public housing promised when Ickes was demolished more than a decade ago, he said.

He called Wednesday’s potential board action “a slap in the face” because community members have said they don’t want the school on the former Ickes land.

“It’s not about community engagement. It’s about checking off a box,” Wilson said Monday. “It’s about them trying to convince people of what they want to see. I think that’s the problem here, a top-down approach coming from the fifth floor (of City Hall) on to CPS.”

Wilson said he met last week with two new board members, Sulema Medrano Novak and Joyce Chapman, to advocate for building the school on The 78, a new neighborhood set to rise on vacant riverfront land between Roosevelt Road and Chinatown’s Ping Tom Memorial Park.

As part of this proposal, selective enrollment high school Jones College Prep in the South Loop would be repurposed to allow for a mix of neighborhood and selective enrollment students, and $30 million would be split between Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Bronzeville, Tilden High School in Canaryville and Thomas Kelly College Prep in Brighton Park for improvements.

Wilson couldn’t tell if he swayed Medrano Novak and Chapman, but said his group will continue its fight. A land exchange between CPS and CHA would be subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We don’t need to be part of a matriarchy, where you tell us what’s best for us. We don’t need that. We know what we need for our communities,” Wilson said. “I hope that the board members recognize who they’re responsible to and who their duty is to. And I hope that the mayor ultimately gets that it’s not about her and what she wants. It’s about what the community wants. And right now we’ll just hope and see.”

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Members of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, meanwhile, have long advocated for the high school, which they hope would feature STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) curriculum and programming that would support immigrant families in the Latino and Asian communities.

Executive Director Grace Chan McKibben said her group has asked CPS for a detailed analysis of proposed sites. The 78 is the top pick for the coalition, which stands in support with public housing advocates.

“I understand the pushback from CPS has been that there’s no infrastructure there right now, and that it will take a longer time to be completed,” Chan McKibben said about The 78. She noted that the University of Illinois’ Discovery Partners Institute was announced for that site just last week. “We really would like some synergy between these projects.”

She said her group met Friday with new board member Paige Ponder, but couldn’t get a read on which way she will vote.

The high school would be paid for with $50 million in state funding that has been re-appropriated a few times, and $70 million previously announced for a Near West Side high school that was never built. The lease between the CHA and CPS would be for 55 years, with the option of two 20-year extensions.

In the meantime, work continues on the Southbridge mixed-use development near Cermak Road and State Street. It’s expected to feature 877 units, including 244 for CHA families. Ickes once had 740 units.

tswartz@tribpub.com



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