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Keeping up with the Jones high school plans 

How Mayor Emanuel could turn Jones high into a neighborhood school—and win my almost undying support

In the spirit of peace and reconciliation, I've found a way for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to win my everlasting support.

Well, maybe not everlasting. But at least for a day.

All he has to do is sign on to Alderman Robert Fioretti's plan to turn the existing Jones high school building, at 606 S. State, into a neighborhood school.

That would entail not turning it over to developers or one of his charter school cronies, which, if I know our mayor, is what he's probably yearning to do.

This is one of those never-seems-to-die stories that I've been following for years. In 1998 Paul Vallas, then the schools CEO, announced it was time to create a school for the burgeoning South Loop community. The move was part of Mayor Daley's larger plan to create new high schools—college preps like Walter Payton, Northside, and Gwendolyn Brooks—that might keep middle-class parents from leaving the city.

In this case Vallas proposed converting the old Jones Commercial High School, a perfectly fine vocational school that taught secretarial and clerical skills, into a college preparatory school. The change would enable Vallas to fire the entire teaching staff. Then as now, nothing titillates the brass as much as firing teachers.

Mayor Daley and Vallas also wanted to build a new school building just south of the existing one, on land then occupied by the Pacific Garden Mission, a homeless shelter. Some skeptics charged that the whole scheme was nothing more than an excuse to get the homeless out of the South Loop and thus accelerate gentrification.

OK, I was the guy who said that. But I think there were at least a few others who agreed with me.

Anyway, in the fall of '98, the Chicago Public Schools closed Jones Commercial and opened Jones College Prep. But it took longer than expected to negotiate a deal with the Pacific Garden Mission, and meanwhile the old school needed to be renovated.

So in the spring of 2001 Vallas announced that he was temporarily moving Jones to the old Near North high school building, at 1450 N. Larrabee. He said $50 million would be spent renovating the old Jones building, and the kids would be welcomed back in the fall of 2002. And all the time CPS would be negotiating to buy the mission property.

By August 2001, though, CPS changed its plans. Yes, I know you're shocked. But officials said they couldn't send Jones students to Near North because somehow CPS had just discovered—as in, "Oh my god! No one told us this before!"—that the CHA had plans to buy it and have the land developed. So instead officials would just scatter the Jones kids among various high schools throughout the city—none of which particularly wanted an influx of students.

Obviously, this was a first step towards dismantling Jones altogether. It might have even prompted some Jones parents to say something like, "That weird guy at the Reader was right—they were just using us an excuse to get the homeless out of the South Loop!"

The parents called in the press and raised holy hell—prompting Mayor Daley to have an exchange with Arne Duncan, Vallas's successor, that presumably went a little like this.

DALEY: Get these mother-bleeping Jones parents off my back!

DUNCAN: Yes, boss—I will. Promise!

Within a few days Duncan called a press conference to proclaim that—miracle of miracles—the CHA didn't need the Near North building after all, so the Jones kids could use it for a year.

CPS then pumped about $50 million into fixing up the old Jones school, and the kids returned in the fall of 2002.

It's been all peace and love ever since. Jones has gone on to become one of the highest-scoring and highest-achieving schools in the city. It even won the state 2A championship in boys cross-country last fall. Go Eagles!

At this point I can't imagine any mayor—no matter how demented or powerful—would dare destroy it for a developer. But never say never.

In the meantime, the Pacific Garden Mission has been moved to 1458 S. Canal, and the new school is almost completed, at a cost of about $120 million. The new Jones will open its doors in September, only 12 years behind schedule—but who's counting?

All of which raises the question: What should be done with the existing Jones building?

"We should turn it into a neighborhood school," says Fioretti, the Second Ward alderman, "so that middle-class people will have a reason to stay in the city."

And—irony of ironies—that's supposedly what Daley and Vallas were looking to do in the first place.

As Fioretti points out, they originally intended for Jones College Prep to get most of its students from the South Loop. But the school now draws from across the city. "We still have a lot of families in the area who want a good school for their kids," Fioretti says. "It's time to be proactive. Let's plan for the future."

At the very least, it makes no sense to demolish the building after spending $50 million to renovate it.

In August Fioretti made his suggestion at the school board meeting. "I told the board if they don't save the school, they're sending a message to folks that they're turning their backs on the middle class," he says.

And how did they respond?

"They asked, 'Where would we get the money?' I said they should think of it like an investment in Chicago's future. Or would you rather have the middle class leave us?"

The response so far has been a resounding silence. CPS officials haven't said they're going to destroy the old building, but they haven't promised they won't. "They haven't told me what they plan to do," says Fioretti.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll says officials are studying the matter. "As the district faces a $1 billion deficit, we want to make sure any decisions we make are in the best interest of our students."

Fioretti says he recently learned that CPS has created an internal panel to study the problem, but it doesn't include the alderman or community residents.

Translation: CPS officials are stalling for time while the mayor figures out what to do.

"The boundaries for a new school would go from about 35th on the south to Grand on the north, Ashland on the west, and the lake" on the east, says Fioretti. "We keep saying, 'If you build it, they will come.'"

I predict that if Fioretti and residents apply enough pressure, the mayor will call a press conference to announce he wants to turn Jones into a neighborhood school because it's really important to keep the middle class in Chicago—like it was his idea all along. Sort of like the press conferences he's called to declare his newfound support for gay marriage, gun control, and immigrants' rights. Don't say he's not adaptable.

If things go really well, maybe CPS will even create a vocational program, like the one at the old Jones Commercial School, which, in my humble opinion, should never have been destroyed in the first place. But hey, it's never too late to try and rectify old mistakes.

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