National Teachers Academy: Fighting For Fairness In Academic Excellence
By Mary L. Datcher | Defender Sr. Staff Writer
The National Teachers Academy (NTA) is the latest sacrificial lamb slated to be on the chopping block if CPS and the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance (PDNA) has their way. Located at 55 W. Cermak, NTA was opened in 2002 and shared partial land with CHA’s Harold Ickes Homes for eight years. Now that the neighbor-hood has welcomed new, more affluent neighbors—and the school has drastically improved– some are pushing to transition from pre-K to 8 to K-12, which would reduce the boundaries for those allowed to attend NTA.
The Harold Ickes Homes was built as a part of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) projects in 1958. In its heyday, Ickes Homes included 11 buildings and 1,000 families; its last building was vacated and demolished in 2010.
Rapid gentrification from 12th Street to 35th Street bordering Chinatown extending to the Lake Meadows community has created a class war among many residents. As construction cranes hover over the areas of Cermak and Calumet, it is a clear indication of the economic changes anticipated by the residents and commercial businesses. Once considered underdeveloped and quietly overlooked—the South Michigan Avenue corridor was left dormant for decades. Throughout the 1950’s and 1970’s, it was vibrant and bustling with commercial retail businesses between an overflow of car dealerships and record companies that stretched within a 10-block radius.
The recession hit businesses hard in the 1980’s and left the area riddled with transient hotels and empty storefronts.
National Teachers Academy School And a predominately African-American community called the near South Side home since the Great Migration. Gradually, businesses began to identify the sleepy area’s potential as nightlife spots such as Chic Rick’s and later E2 nightclub would bring weekly attention to the area for young clubgoers. With the expansion and build-out of McCormick Place Convention Center and new Hyatt Hotel in 1998, plans were put in place by then-mayor Richard M. Daley to develop the area into a high traffic tourist destination.
As more residential luxury homes and apartment buildings gradually aligned Calumet Avenue from Roosevelt Road to Cermak Road, it became abundantly clear—change was inevitable.
Residents who have called the community home for decades in some of its affordable housing residences gained wealthier new neighbors. The concern of which schools and with whom their children would intermingle with became a hot button issue. Nearly 12 years ago, South Loop resident and attorney. Robert O’Neill pitched a charter school for the neighborhood to address the issues of parents wanting a separate school within the neighborhood. He later formed a non-profit organization called Urban Assets to organize parents, local leaders and lobby school board officials.
His attempts failed due to then-CPS Superintendent Paul Vallas saying the proposed school would “racially isolate” the area.
According to the website, the PDNA is a non-profit organization, founded in 2006 by resident volunteers who advocate for neighborhood development, city planning, public safety and education. The group has pushed hard for NTA expansion into a K-12 high school for the last ten years because of limited seats at nearby Jones College Preparatory High School and the neighborhood grade school South Loop Elementary.
The Local School Council President for NTA Elisabeth Greer says because of overcrowding concerns at South Loop Elementary, CPS and PDNA wanted to ex-tend into NTA’s building a few years ago.
“At that time NTA was under enrolled, the school did not have the Regional Gifted Center (RGC) program. They had about 500 students in a building that could seat 840 children. From our understanding, the local school council at South Loop Elementary voted among themselves to move their middle school into NTA.” Greer said, NTA’s then-principal Amy Rome was not aware of the proposal and found out about it through a reporter who saw the CPS proposal.
Greer says, “The proposal was straight out of the Jim Crow handbook. They said, ‘We want our children to have their own floor. We want them to have their own parking spaces. We want stagger and stop times so we don’t have to interact with the NTA kids who were already there.’ Principal Rome, to her credit, had to fight hard. She said, ‘How dare you talk about my school and basically colonize and never talk to me about it?’ Fortunately, the community came out in force. CPS ended up calling her and apologizing. It was a huge disaster and it was so racist and classist.”
Audrey Johnson is a former resident of the Earl Ickes Homes. Her family moved there when she was five and she’s raised five children of her own—three have graduated from NTA with two currently enrolled.
She admits the school has had its challenges struggling from a Level 3 school to now 5 points away from achieving a Level 1+ status—the highest score for a school to achieve. Johnson contributes a great deal to the efforts of former Principal Amy Rome’s dedication and commitment.
“She was awesome, she was our principal. We took her through the neighborhood and we took her throughout the Ickes homes and introduced her to the management. We brought her to the residents; we tried to go to each and every unit to introduce her to the parents,” she said. “We took our teachers through the projects so they could see our living arrangements and what help and support we needed in there. Our projects honored them to the utmost and they respected them coming to our building.”
Amy Rome was the school’s principal from 2006 through 2012, working diligently with training teachers to work with students in challenging Urban learning environments. The level of academic excellence combined with meditative methods have garnered remarkable results. The Defender reached out to NTA’s current principal, Isaac D. Castelaz, who was unavailable for comment regarding the CPS proposal.
NTA Turns Around
In 2007, CPS turned over management of NTA to the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL). With a program de-signed for academically and advance children, the school’s curriculum has progressively helped the entire student body to excel in their academics and test scores. Close to 80 percent of NTA’s student body is Black and nearly 70 percent are from low-income households.
Hannah Imam, a South Loop business owner, had her apprehensions in the beginning when she started searching for schools for her child. After a long conversation with the principal, she felt good about selecting NTA.
“One of the things that I’ve noticed, they do look at the development of the students very comprehensively. It’s not about what happens in the classroom. For example, everyone in the school in the morning, they take what they call a ‘mindful minute’. When someone speaks over the speaker and they encourage all of the students in the school to take a moment to sit in quiet. No one says a word and students center on their work when they start the day,” Imam said.
“Even with the 8th grade students, I’ve seen them do yoga practice. When there’s conflict in the school, they sit with the children and help them talk through their is-sues and help them understand each other. In doing this, they’ve eliminated some of these emotional distractions, helping students come more attuned with them-selves and be able to see their capabilities better.”
When speaking with PDNA’s President Tina Feldstein, she directed the Defender to the organization’s website where an official statement is currently posted.
“While PDNA supports the current CPS plan to bring a neighborhood high school to our community, we do so not as an attack on NTA or its school community. PDNA learned long ago that perfect can often be the enemy of good, whether it is development, transportation, parks or education. PDNA’s advocacy for a neighborhood high school is not an attack on NTA or their community or a lack of recognition of the progress that the school has made. Right now, there are two options — go with the CPS plan or continue on without a neighborhood high school option.”
PDNA’s members mostly live between 18th and Cullerton, Prairie and Calumet Avenue—some middle-to-upper class families residing within the small historic tree-lined area where property is valued within the six to seven-figure range.
In 2009, the group was in support of the school board’s initial plans to include NTA expansion to include South Loop Elementary School, but CPS was not financially feasible at the time.
Opponents of the NTA high school proposal says there’s a much bigger elephant in the room.
Both Dunbar Vocational Academy High School and Wendell Phillips Academy High School are within the school district for South Loop families to send their kids to public schools. Phillips High School has dramatically improved academically and boasts a 100 percent graduation rate this year—having most of its graduates accepted at colleges and universities. Some parents feel the school is also in need for the same expansion and build out afforded for the proposed $62 million budget CPS has slated for NTA’s conversion into a K-12 campus with an additional $10 million for its high school.
Elisabeth Greer is appalled. “When NTA is built [including the high school], it’ll cost $72 million. When instead you could’ve taken a fraction of that money and put it into Phillips High School, which is severely under-utilized and a gorgeous facility, create strong academic programs, like double honors and ID and selective enrollment to draw middle class families to the community and strengthen our neighborhood schools. That neighborhood is gentrifying rapidly. It’s happening at Amundsen, Von Steuben, Lakeview—why is this not happening in the near South Side?”
The Alderman’s Involvement
In 2010, Alderman Pat Dowell, who rep-resents the 3rd Ward, was an advocate on behalf of low-income residents fighting for the right of their children to stay within the school district boundaries and against South Loop Elementary takeover of NTA. Now, as the neighborhood has shifted more in diversity and with growing families, she feels it is time for change and compromise.
“This is a larger community issue. The elementary school, which is primarily located in the South Loop, is an overcrowded elementary school and 113 percent overcrowded. Since I’ve been an alder-man, that has been an issue in addition to former Alderman Bob Fioretta represent-ing his portion of the South Loop,” Dowell says.
“That is what I’ve been advocating for in terms of finding a location, identifying the funds to build this additional addition to the existing school, to relieve overcrowding and provide opportunities for more people to be able to attend South Loop Elementary. It’s not an attack on NTA,” she says.
NTA parents do not feel the support has been fair from the alderman and blame her appeal to wealthier residents, political al-lies and construction developers.
Audrey Johnson feels deeply hurt regarding the alderman’s position. “Pat Dowell played a big part in our school and that’s why I’m so angry with her,” The mother of five says. “When we were having trouble with the police harassment, she came down and helped us. When we had the fight with South Loop Elementary before, she was on the panel against that. As long as those buildings [Ickes] were up and we were supporting her, she supported us. Now, the buildings are gone; she went on to the next neighborhood to manipulate them. You’re against us because you don’t have those development votes,” said Johnson.
Under the new CPS proposal, NTA grade students would be “grandfathered” in without having to relocate. They would not be required to relocate nor find another high school, but if the boundaries are decreased, 300 families—mainly low-in-come families–would not be included as new applicants.
Dowell admits the city is very segregated and the divide between both schools was created before she was elected in 2007. She’s faced with the diverse shift of residents who no longer represent one majority but several groups that are distinctly different in racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“I think the proposal is not designed to segregate anyone. It’s designed to really create the kind of community that the South Loop is. The South Loop community is diverse. There’s all kinds of people who live in the area. I think the creation of the school—if this proposal was passed—would be reflective of the entire community.”
Not backing down without a fight and a fair chance to be heard, NTA parents felt CPS played them to the left.
Hannah Imam says, “We weren’t afforded transparency on this proposal until we held our own townhall. Three hours be-fore our town hall took place, they released a letter admitting what their long-term plan was to shut our school down to turn it into a high school. At first, they were talking about boundaries. Now, publicly they’re decreasing NTA’s boundaries. We called them out and said, ‘We know what you’re trying to do. We know you’re trying to decrease our boundaries, label us as “unenrolled” and take us over as a high school.’ We called our own townhall meeting to address this.”
On Tuesday evening, a public hearing was held at South Loop Elementary to address these concerns among South Loop residents, PDNA and NTA parents. Both CPS representatives and Alderman Dowell was in attendance listening to heated arguments and passionate testimonies from both sides.
The next public meeting will take place at NTA on July 10, two weeks after the school year ends, but parents are ready to engage a summer long grassroots campaign to make their voice heard.
Although the existing community near the old Ickes has changed over the last decade and is now consisted of 40 percent non-African American residents which includes Asian and Latino residents—Johnson says their new neighbors aren’t so new now. She says they were hesitant about NTA and what was within the walls of the school until they took a look.
“They didn’t know about NTA. They were looking from the outside and when they came in, their mouths dropped. The school is awesome. They were worried about the color of our skin and that’s the problem now. The ones that are still going to South Loop Elementary are still worried about the color of our skin.” Living in the neighborhood for over four decades, she feels it’s more than new luxury housing developments, hotels and conventioneers.
Johnson reflects. “The South Loop neighborhood for me is from 18th Street to 35th Street. This is our family—this is our community.”
Read CPS letter to South Loop Elementary and NTA parents: 05.23.17 NTA community letter