Three years ago, the Chicago Roman Catholic Archdiocese announced it would close St. Martin de Porres High School. The sprawling, 40-acre South Side campus caught the acquisitive eye of the Chicago Public Schools.
At first, CPS and the Archdiocese discussed a space-sharing deal, where the board would rent two buildings for a preschool and a transition center for over-age 8th-graders whose test scores were too low for high school admission.
Later, school officials decided to buy the property outright, although they had not made a decision on how to use the site. Ideas included making it home to a charter high school or a multi-school complex. When the $2.8 million sale went through in July 1997, the board had settled on creating two schools: an 8th-grade transition center and Southside College Preparatory High School.
Linda Layne was hired July 1997 as principal of Southside. When the school opened in the fall of 1997, she says, it was a college prep in name only. Most students had been enrolled at St. Martin and simply stayed on. “We really didn’t become a college prep until 1999, with our sophomore class,” says Layne.
Layne had only a month to hire staff and pull together a curriculum. “We had to do a lot of work,” Layne recalls, chuckling. She consulted the board’s Human Resources Department to help her find teachers, fast. “They were very helpful. That first year, I got 18 staff members.”
The board initially estimated the school would need only $1.5 million to $2 million in repair and renovation work. But powerful allies, including Rev. Meeks, Ald. Beale and state Rep. Thomas Dart, gave Southside a capital boost.
Like Meeks, Beale talked to CPS officials to make sure Southside got its fair share. “I am in constant contact with Paul Vallas to make sure that things are in place and are being done in a timely fashion,” he says. “The appearance of Southside was a top priority for me because it helps attract quality students and sell the school.”
And State Rep. Dart, who encouraged Vallas to purchase the site and the old school, kept tabs on Southside, too. “We have a chip on our shoulders here on the South Side. We usually don’t get the attention we deserve.”
Their early efforts paid off. The board’s 1999 Capital Improvement Plan set aside $33 million for renovations. The plan called for two new three-story additions to the main school building, which originally was slated for “minor repairs” but instead is being gutted and rebuilt. Work began in May 1999 and is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2001.
When the dust settles, Southside will have four science labs, a computer lab, a library and media center, a counseling center, a new gym and 190 computers. Though it is not reflected in the capital budget, the board has also promised the school a new pool and an auditorium.
“I’ve been very pleased with what Southside has been getting so far,” says Rep. Dart. “I foresee Southside becoming a school like Whitney Young, where families are trying to figure out how to get over to the South Side so their kids can go there.”
Layne says that the school already has developed a reputation that is attracting students from magnet and neighborhood elementary schools across Region 6. The proof is in student demographics. First-year enrollment was nearly 100 percent African American; this fall, 80 percent of students are African American, 15 percent are Hispanic, 3 percent are white and 2 percent are Asian.
“This year, we’re finally multicultural,” Layne says.