by Lesley R. Chinn
Having a school sit right off the lake may be a good idea to some people, but members of Friends of the Parks and the South Shore Community Organization have other ideas for relocating Powell Elementary School. The two groups oppose moving Powell across the street to the north end of Rainbow Beach Park. Right now, the school is located on 7530 S. South Shore Drive.
Last Friday, members of both groups toured the area to seek alternative sites. However, it’s the current site that impressed them most. Instead of relocating the school, the groups see room for expansion and using the current space more efficiently.
Erma Traintor, president of Friends of the Parks, pointed out that the land on the South side of Powell School, where the two trailers are located on the current site are not being used at all. Friends of the Parks is a membership organization that works to protect, preserve and improve park and beach properties. “All of that land is available if an addition (is needed),” she said.
About five years ago, a similar situation erupted on the North side where residents opposed a school being built in Warren Park. “We researched the land and found that the land couldn’t be transferred for a school because the state had given the park district the land,” Traintor recalled.
Park land, especially in the Black community, is being threatened and this latest issue seems to be part of a trend said, Aarafa Payne, a co-facilitator of the South Shore Community Organization. “Building a school on the lakefront in Lincoln Park would never happen in Lincoln Park,” she added.
In addition, Traintor said building a school on the lakefront would violate the city’s lakefront protection ordinance. The ordinance, adopted in 1973, mandates that the City of Chicago create parks along the entire Lakefront. “This lakefront belongs to everybody to use for health and fitness. The community of South Shore and even further south as Southeast Chicago are very park poor. They don’t have enough space for recreation,” Traintor said. “Park land should never be given to the board of education. Schools should be built when they are needed. The board of education needs to find the appropriate land, do good planning and build a school on the land they acquire and not look to the park district to (get) it.”
Dr. Akilah Martin, also a member of the South Shore Community Organization, agreed. She said new property shouldn’t be taken away when there is existing property that could be used for expansion.
Citing safety concerns such as drowning and crossing a busy intersection, Payne said that Rainbow Beach is the only real access to park space for the South Shore area and a school built at Rainbow Beach Park, would only reduce opportunities for recreation. “Our issue is don’t take our park space away for a school. We love a school. Our property taxes may go up and we’re ok with that, but we’re not ok with putting a school in the scarce park space that we have,” Payne said.
In response to both groups’ concerns, an official from 7th Ward Ald. Sandi Jackson’s office who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the alternative site that the groups request have been reviewed. The official stated that the current site would not be the best alternative because it would involve tearing down the school in order to rebuild it and temporarily displacing the students. The official also said that Rainbow Beach Park is a much better location because the space allotted would accommodate more than 900 students.
CPS spokesman Frank Shuftan said construction for the new school is projected to start in the Spring of 2009, adding that it will be ready for student enrollment in the Fall of 2010. Shuftan said the announcement of construction of the new Powell School was made as part of the Modern Schools Across Chicago program in June 2006. The new school will follow a prototype design on 2.43 acres of land, offering about 106,000 square feet to 900 students from prekindergarten to 8th grade, he said. As part of this project, the Chicago Park District will receive approximately two acres of land in return for the approximate one acre to be used in the development of Powell School. The land the park district will get is farther south in Rainbow Beach Park, according to Shuftan, who said the plan is scheduled to go before various city agencies sometime this month.
The alderman’s official said the school would be relocated closest to the street and not the lakefront. She said the same concerns about safety at the current location would be similar at the proposed site. Afence separating the school land from the lakefront property would be erected and there would be crossing guards onsite to help patrol traffic during school hours, she added.
Calls were made to Powell School’s principal Derek Jordan, but he had no comment about the relocation process.