SOUTH LOOP — Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) has fired back at critics of a plan to close National Teachers Academy and convert it to a new South Loop high school, saying it's "plain false" such a move would shutter a majority black school to benefit a white one.
Dowell issued a lengthy statement Monday night in support of the plan following three contentious town hall meetings this summer that often pit National Teachers Academy parents against those at nearby South Loop Elementary School.
Chicago Public Schools plans to close National Teachers Academy, 55 W. Cermak Road, and convert it to a new neighborhood high school as it prepares to open a new South Loop Elementary School nearby.
The plan has drawn ire from parents and staff at National Teachers Academy, which has jumped to the second-highest mark on CPS' five-point quality scale in just two years.
National Teachers Academy's student body is 80 percent black and low-income. Many academy parents say CPS' plan is racially discriminatory and would scrub out a school that is making strides despite challenges.
Dowell rebuked those claims Monday, saying that with a 26 percent white student population, South Loop Elementary is also a majority minority school.
"What this proposal does is create an EVEN MORE integrated school community," Dowell wrote. "The characterization that CPS is closing a minority school to benefit a white school is just plain false."
National Teachers Academy parents were first alarmed when top CPS officials revealed in April that the new South Loop Elementary School boundaries would be extended four blocks south from 18th Street to Cermak Road, cutting into the academy's territory.
By May CPS announced a series of community meetings presenting its plan to close National Teachers Academy and convert it to a high school that would serve all or parts of Armour Square, Bridgeport, Bronzeville, Chinatown and the South Loop once the new South Loop Elementary opens at 16th and Dearborn streets.
By the last of the three meetings, CPS softened its message by saying that such a conversion would be "gradual" and allow some National Teachers Academy students to stay at the school through the 2019-20 school year.
CPS announced its plan after years of clamoring by South Loop parents for a new neighborhood high school. Less than four percent of teenagers who graduated from Near South Side elementary schools including both South Loop Elementary and National Teachers Academy in the past decade chose to attend their neighborhood high school, Wendell Phillips Academy in Bronzeville, CPS has said.
The school district is also spending more than $60 million to build a new South Loop Elementary campus to address years of overcrowding. The new building at 1601 S. Dearborn St. is set to open in 2019, and the existing building at 1212 S. Plymouth Court is set to house "lower grade" elementary school students, Dowell said.
Though the alderman likened CPS' plan to a school merger with "enormous" benefits, many National Teachers Academy parents don't see it that way.
"This is a hostile takeover," said Elisabeth Greer, president of the school's local school council.
While Dowell maintains that CPS has offered ample opportunities for comment, Greer and other people associated with National Teachers Academy allege that the plan was hatched through a series of backroom meetings.
Still, Greer said the academy's community isn't deterred, saying Dowell's statement Monday is just a "smokescreen" to get parents "to be quiet and give up like this is a done deal."
The Board of Education would have to approve any proposed school changes for them to take effect. Michael Passman, a spokesman for CPS, said that the school district will update parents on its plan before the start of the next school year.