A New High School In Englewood

A new Englewood neighborhood school will be opened on the site of Robeson High School for the 2019-20 school year. (Rendering courtesy of Chicago Public Schools)

Chicago’s public schools are in a constant dither. Public education seems to be a never-ending socio-economic problem in Chicago, though education is such a key issue.

In October 1963, parents of Black school students in Chicago protested over their children being taught in “Willis Wagons.”

These were 200 or so portable shabby aluminum trailers that then schools Supt. Benjamin Willis put in playgrounds and parking lots of African-American schools to keep students from those overcrowded schools from transferring to white schools in Chicago that had empty seats, though some of the under-attended white schools were only blocks away.

As a matter of fact, the overcrowding was so bad that the Willis Wagons operated on double-shift schedules, meaning that Black students being “taught” in them were really only getting half a day of attendance.

Though parents kept almost 200,000 students out of school for that one-day protest and marched on the Board of Education, the school board did nothing. The contract of Supt. Willis was extended and it’s said that the Willis Wagons remained with the Chicago public schools system in one form or another until almost the 1990s.

But the strength of that boycott laid the foundation for Dr. Martin Luther King to come to Chicago for more far reaching civil rights protests in 1966, and was proof positive that education in this town, like it or not, is a racial issue.

Funding matters. Urban schools are funded differently than suburban schools, resources differ, and opportunities differ.

I wonder how a school system in such dire straits can afford to build a new $75 million school.

Education boils down to politics. Education is always a campaign issue, no matter the campaign. We have slept on the problem long enough, moving from schools being an independent entity to a department of the Mayor’s office, although it’s always been a pawn of the Mayor’s office.

In the case of the Willis Wagons, those containers were named after the superintendent, but could not have existed without the approval of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who controlled the entire city.

We have seen education change from the hands of educators to others who don’t hold PhD’s in the discipline, but instead work the business of real estate and union politics.

Now as we are in the 21st century, the digital age, these problems are dramatic and still exist as we become more equalized with the touch of the button and the slide of the screen.

I was on an education panel recently as a moderator with Arnie Duncan and he said something that caught my attention as we discussed solutions.

He said, “One-size education does not fit all anymore. We need a variety of educational models to fit the students’ needs. Some may need four hours of school, some may need six hours, some may need after school, and some may need boarding school.”

To me, this is the right direction. In this digital age of learning, the world opens and learning modalities have changed for the teacher and the student.

The New Englewood High

New Englewood neighborhood school
A new Englewood neighborhood school will be opened on the site of Robeson High School for the 2019-20 school year. (Rendering courtesy of Chicago Public Schools) Click to view video

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS have announced a new $75 million state of the art high school to be completed in 2019 in Englewood, to be located in what is currently one of the city’s most deprived neighborhoods, but may not be for long as the gentrification surrounding that area with the Obama Presidential Library coming continues.

It sounds good to me. It adds to the economic boom in the area. I hope the Mayor and his staff assume an open door, all hands on deck policy in the development of the school. The opening of the new school, in year 2019, also coincides with the next Chicago mayoral election.

I am reminded of the time when Dr. Wayne Watson and Mayor Richard M. Daley built the new Kennedy-King College in Englewood. They were often lambasted for doing so, hearing that it would be a white elephant and that no one would attend because of the crime in the area.

This sentiment was expressed in a Chicago Tribune editorial. Watson, an Englewood resident, was determined, thinking that he could build a new and better mouse trap with new educational options that would be attractive citywide, to include the culinary school that has become award winning, and a world-class media studio.

Watson was right and Mayor Daley and City Colleges Board Chairman James Tyree were supportive as he fought off the sharks. The new school won awards for its innovation, including multiple buildings on campus rather than a single structure. It worked, and exemplified new thinking, unlimited possibility, and the opportunity to look forward. What this leadership recognized is that the community college would anchor the community. And now, with the addition of Englewood High School nearby the area will provide an educational campus.

Education for society is always a preparation for the future. The high school students who enter school today are probably four to eight years away from putting that education to use.

I hope the new Englewood school will host community meetings to see what the concerns and needs of its neighbors are. I also hope professionals that are steeped in the educational profession will be brought to the table to share in the thinking and planning of the new school.

I hope the business community will come to the table to discuss what the job market will look like in the future. I hope a task force is formed to work as a team to explore the options of a new educational opportunity.

I hope the building that will probably have every technology gadget known to mankind will also consider community assets. I hope that Black students will be the primary demographic that this new school serves, while also including multi-cultural diversity.

And finally, I wonder how a school system that is in such dire straits – that constantly wrestles with the teachers union, regularly fights with the state legislators and governor on budget, and can’t fund its pensions – how can it really consider paying for a brand spanking new $75 million school. For real.

Hermene Hartman
Hermene Hartman

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