Near South Side: A developer's view

Last April, school officials announced they would close Williams Elementary School for poor performance, especially on test scores. Williams would rise again in 2003 as a “Renaissance School,” providing a model for the School Board’s new effort “to transform low-performing neighborhood schools into stellar academic institutions,” said Board President Michael Scott.

In this case, the neighborhood is the Near South Side, which is awash in a tidal wave of gentrification. As on the North Side, new development is changing the face of the community but not its schools. For the most part, the new, upper-income residents who have children send them to public magnet schools or private schools, not neighborhood schools, which include some of the lowest-ranking ones in the city.

“From a personal vantage point, it’s great,” longtime resident Sokoni Karanja says of the development. “I bought my house for a song, and it’s worth a whole bunch of money now, I imagine.” But the neighborhood’s transformation “ought to be made to work for everybody,” he adds.

Karanja is president and CEO of Centers for New Horizons, a social service and community development group serving neighborhoods from Cermak Road to 45th Street. In a message on the organization’s Web site, he says the South Side must not be allowed to become “two separate communities, one of gates and highly selective schools for middle-income families, the other of inferior housing and low-performing neighborhood schools for low-income families.”

So far, Williams School, which is at 2700 south, has been relatively untouched by gentrification. It sits among the Dearborn Homes, a public-housing development that is taking in residents from public housing that is being torn down.

However, two of the three schools that Williams students were dispatched to this year have seen their local enrollments plummet as their neighborhood fortunes rose. Douglas Elementary, 3200 south, is in the middle of the Gap, a beachhead for gentrification more than 20 years ago. Once the city’s largest elementary school, Douglas now has a neighborhood enrollment of just 163 out of a total of 577 students.

Until two years ago, Drake Elementary, 2700 south, drew most of its students from the Chicago Housing Authority’s Prairie Courts, which the CHA has just emptied out. Now the enrollment from its attendance area is 124, about a third of what it was in 1999.

The third home for Williams refugees is the new, $47 million National Teachers Academy, at 1800 south. It is surrounded by the CHA’s Harold Ickes Homes, which also are receiving residents from CHA demolition targets.

But gentrification is fast heading its way. The master plan for the largest South Loop development, Central Station, shows its condos and town-homes stretching all the way to the corner of Cermak and Michigan, two blocks east of Ickes and three blocks from NTA. (Since the early 1990s, Central Station’s best-known resident has been Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.)

The city and private developers are “lining us up to be Central Station all the way to 67th,” says Karanja. “Everybody just salivates over Central Station because the bottom line looks good, but the human issues that pervade this process are not being addressed.”

CHA officials have not decided yet whether they will rehab or tear down the Dearborn Homes and Ickes, both of which sent children to Williams School. However, since the agency plans to turn all of its properties into mixed-income developments by 2009, a decision can be only two or three years away, says Kathryn Greenberg, the CHA’s managing director for communications.

At least one observer thinks that closing Williams was intended to soften up the community for relocation. “You close the schools that serve those communities, you can be sure [residents] are not going to stick around,” says Dion Miller Perez, an organizer with the Cross-City Campaign for Urban School Reform. “Get rid of the kids and you get rid of the families.”

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