Community advocates want to see new life in closed schools

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Four buildings remain shuttered and unused in Austin since CPS closed nearly 50 schools throughout Chicago last summer.

Robert Emmet Elementary, George Leland Elementary, Francis Scott Key Elementary and Louis Armstrong Math & Science Elementary all saw their doors shut. And it’s not clear if and when any of them will be used for something new.

CPS spokesman Michael Passman said in an email the vacant properties are being maintained by the distirct, and it’s in the process of working with aldermen to ask for proposals to repurpose the properties.

Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) said she has sent CPS proposals but aren’t “hunkering anything down yet.”

She said she’s seeing what people are interested in doing with the buildings, but she has heard suggestions for youth centers or developing a new housing option, among other ideas.

Graham said she is paying attention to the empty Emmet building in particular because it’s on a busy street.

“It’s on a major street, so we can’t just put anything there,” she said.

It costs more than $300,000 total to maintain all four vacant buildings for repurposing, according to CPS.

Bernard Clay, chairman of the Chicago Westside Branch NAACP’s education committee, said the vacant buildings are still costing taxpayers money.

“There’s no rhyme or reason for the buildings sitting there empty; it still costs money. We’re still having to pay a cost, but we aren’t getting a return on our investment,” Clay said.

Clay said the way the city went about closing the schools was terrible, and most people went along with it because they have to get their children educated.

Brandon Johnson, an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, said the school closings have had a profound impact on the Austin community. He said the vacant buildings should be seen as an asset.

“There has to be some guarantee that whatever goes into the buildings, the Austin community benefits from it,” Johnson said.

In a community that has already seen a lot of disinvestment, some education and community advocates would like to see the buildings repurposed for something that benefits Austin.

Elce Redmond, an organizer with the South Austin Community Coalition, said since the buildings were once schools, whatever the building is used for next should be something related to education and community resources — like a community center.

“We’d love to have the school back, but that’s not going to happen, so why not turn it into a center for learning?” Redmond said.

He said he doesn’t think the city or CPS is committed to education, and the situation is devastating to Austin and other communities.

But Redmond doesn’t think anything will come of the buildings unless the community pushes the issue and makes something happen.

“It’s imperative to get those buildings reopened in some sort of capacity,” he said.

Like the other closed schools, Emmet Elementary, at 5500 W. Madison St., is boarded up. And there’s graffiti on the playground and weeds growing between the cracks of the pavement.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) agrees with Ald. Graham that the empty Emmet building is a real eye sore on one of Austin’s main streets.

“To have the schools boarded up right on Madison, that’s a major disappointment for the community,” he said.

Ford recently sponsored a resolution in the Illinois House — HR1121 — to build a new high school at the old Emmet site because it has the space and Austin already has a number of elementary schools. He said that every community should have another neighborhood high school because they can be anchors for a community.

Armstrong, at 5345 W. Congress Pkwy.; Leland, at 5221 W. Congress Pkwy.; and Key, at 517 N. Parkside Ave., all look similar to Emmet. There are boarded-up windows and faded marks where the sign used to say each school’s name.

The old Key building has had a negative impact on the Austin branch of the Chicago Public Library, right around the corner from the former school – fewer children are coming to the library.

Shelley Hughes, the children’s librarian who’s worked at the library the last three years, said they’ve seen a significant drop in the number of children visiting the library.

Hughes still does outreach with the other schools in Austin, but she said the easiest outreach is when you’re right there next to a school.

“Nothing quite works as well as when you’re right in someone’s face,” she said.

Dwayne Truss, an Austin resident and board member of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, said he would love to see Emmet go back to being a neighborhood school and Leland used as a library for the South Austin area.

Though Truss would like to see the buildings repurposed for something, he thinks it would be difficult.

“Because honestly, they’re only designed for one thing and one thing only, and that’s to be schools,” he said. “You can potentially remodel into apartments, but that would be pricey. So for those types of projects someone would have to come in with a lot of money to invest in those projects or lease that space.”

TIF money, which is supposed to target blighted areas like Austin, could be used on the schools, but Truss said he doubts there’s enough money in the TIF districts the schools are located in because that funding was used on other projects, like Loretto Hospital.

“The bottom line is unless there is sufficient balances in the TIFs, I cant see them being able to fund any mayor projects, especially if they’re tied to current and past projects.”

Truss said there are a lot of questions that come up about the practical uses for the buildings, but nothing will happen with them this summer.

“There’s no plan, it’s just something that the mayor did without any plans.”

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