Almost since the day Simeon Career Academy opened, parents and students on the far south side have been pleading with the school board to shut it down. The board opened the high school in 1964 in an abandoned Kroger warehouse at 82nd and Vincennes. Board officials assured the community the site was temporary–they were going to build a brand-new school soon.
Well, one year turned into two, then three, then ten. Almost 40 years later the board still hadn’t built a new school. School superintendents, school board presidents, and mayors came and went, each promising to build a new facility. But there were always excuses–other schools needed to be built, promises to other communities had to be kept, the system was broke. “I’ve seen new schools go up all over the city,” football coach Al Scott said back in 2001. “I’m not saying those communities didn’t need those schools. Obviously they did. I’m just saying that we got passed over.”
As the years wore on, the old Kroger warehouse became even more decrepit, and reporters and reformers frequently pointed to it as an example of urban neglect and decay. Principal John Everett and his staff regularly led visitors on a tour. We got ours in the fall of 2001.
Every teacher we met had a horror story to tell. The windows in the band’s storage room wouldn’t close, and the band teacher worried that the instruments would be damaged. The windows in the biology room wouldn’t stay open, so the students baked in the spring and early summer. The window in the math room had a hole large enough for a bird to fly through. “It’s been broken since I was a freshman,” one junior said. The student’s math teacher said he didn’t remember how the window broke. “At some point, what difference does it make?” he said. “In the winter the snow blows in. I cover it with plastic, but sometimes it gets so hot the kids rip the plastic off.”
There were holes in the walls and roof, soiled carpets, water-soaked ceiling tiles, rotting wood, asbestos and pools of standing water in the basement, and the pervasive smell of mold and mildew. Scott estimated that 20 of his colleagues at the school had died of cancer. He himself was recovering from throat cancer. “You wonder about the correlation,” he said.
Our story about Simeon ran that November, not long after school board president Michael Scott made his own promise. “I will not lie to you,” he told parents, staff, and students during a school meeting. “I didn’t come here to blow smoke. I will make sure you get your school.”
To his credit, Scott delivered. On September 2 Mayor Daley cut a ribbon to celebrate the opening of a new Simeon, a $40 million structure just north of the old warehouse, which is being demolished.
Everett stood at the podium set up at the main entrance, along with Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, 17th Ward alderman Latasha Thomas, 21st Ward alderman Howard Brookins Jr., and the chairman of the local school council, Lawrence Rodgers. Six boys and girls from the school’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps stood at attention next to the podium, while other students held white, yellow, and blue balloons. Students, parents, school employees, alumni, and board officials crowded the sidewalk.
Almost every speaker praised Daley. “Without him we wouldn’t have received this new building,” said Everett, even though Daley was well into his 14th year of office by the time the new school was finally finished.
But Everett and his staff were willing to forgive and forget all the broken promises. “If we can educate in a warehouse I know we can educate in this building,” Everett said. “This is a beautiful building.”