Chicago closed 50 schools in 2013, leaving behind 46 buildings.
What happened to the buildings?
Chicago Public Schools shuttered 50 underenrolled and low-performing schools in 2013 in the largest mass closing in the nation’s history. To mark the 10-year anniversary, we visited each shuttered building, talked to dozens of neighbors and reviewed documents to learn what has become of the closed school buildings.
In 2013, Chicago shuttered 46 school buildings
Of the 46 schools, 20 are back in use…
… while 26 remain closed.
Of those 26 dormant buildings, 16 are publicly owned and vacant …
… and 10 have been sold but aren’t in use.
Ten years later, more than half of Chicago’s closed schools remain unused
In the year before Chicago closed what would be an unprecedented 50 public schools in 2013, neighbors of many of the targeted schools offered a warning to then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Once emptied, they said, the buildings would only end up hurting their neighborhoods.
These buildings, almost all on the South Side and the West Side, were mainly in communities already wanting for investment, already drained of residents. They were old and in need of costly repairs. And they were built to be schools. So finding any possible reuses for the buildings, let alone anything like the community anchors they had been, would be a gargantuan and expensive task.
Still, Emanuel plowed ahead, saying that keeping kids in “half-empty schools” wasn’t good for anyone. “The city of Chicago has an opportunity to use these facilities to revitalize our economy in key areas and expand opportunity for Chicagoans in our neighborhoods,” Emanuel said at the time.
Ten years later, that promise rings hollow. More than half of the buildings emptied of children and teachers in 2013 still aren’t back in use.
Over six months, reporters from the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ have visited each of the shuttered buildings. The closings of 50 schools, including four that shared facilities, left 46 buildings empty.
Reporters spoke with dozens of neighbors and reviewed thousands of public documents to learn what has become of the schools spread across 21 wards that were closed by Emanuel’s chosen schools CEO and school board.
Where are the 50 schools Chicago closed?
School officials promised all the empty buildings would be repurposed on an ambitious timeline. They’d be sold by the end of 2014 and their redevelopment underway by early 2015 — which coincided with Emanuel’s bid for reelection.
Today, only 20 buildings — or 43% of the original facilities — are back in use.
Most of them eventually became housing or offices or private schools. Few have been returned to use for the community, as neighborhood residents begged for before their schools were closed.
Contrary to what was promised, many of the successes owe their second life to help from taxpayers because they are still owned by a public body or were redeveloped with significant public money.
The former Peabody Elementary School in Chicago’s Noble Square neighborhood was transformed into luxury apartments, with a piece of land donated to a nonprofit. It’s one 20 former school buildings back in use. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Here’s how the 20 buildings were redeveloped:
- Seven were repurposed by government bodies, including offices for the Chicago Public Schools and a temporary city-run shelter for migrants.
- Thirteen were bought by private entities.
- Seven were reborn as pricey private schools or luxury housing, including one demolished to build new houses priced upwards of $600,000.
- The remaining six became a union hall, a daycare center, a fraternity headquarters, a community center, apartments for senior citizens and veterans, and a fieldhouse leased to the Chicago Park District.
Here’s what happened to the remaining 26 buildings:
- None have been returned to use. That’s 57% of the 46 buildings that closed.
- Many are vacant, including ones that were sold but show no signs of redevelopment.
The former Melody Elementary School on the West Side is one of 26 buildings that have not been returned to use. The property has been sold twice, most recently in October 2019. The original plans called for 80 units of affordable housing. Brian Rich/Sun-Times
CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus says the sale process “was put on hold in 2019 per the request of Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot’s administration in order to develop a strategy on potential repurposing or redevelopment of these sites.”
Lightfoot’s spokesman Cesar Rodriguez declined to comment shortly before her term ended this month. And Emanuel did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Pedro Martinez, CPS’ CEO since 2021, blamed the pandemic for the redevelopment delays. “We're having those conversations now. I am actually also looking forward to Mayor [Brandon] Johnson and really having a stronger conversation with him as well as the city around how we can better plan around these facilities.”
Did Chicago keep its promises?
In 2013, Chicago Public Schools shuttered 50 underenrolled and low-performing schools in the largest mass closing in U.S. history. This impacted about 15,000 children from the closed elementary schools. Thousands more were affected as their schools welcomed the students from closed schools. To mark the 10-year anniversary, we are publishing stories over four weeks that examine three promises made by public officials in 2013: The students would be better off; their new schools would be transformed; the shuttered schools would be reborn as community assets.
Those stories are coming:
- May 25: What happened to the kids?
- June 1: What happened to the welcoming schools?
- June 8: Looking ahead
Living amid hollowed out schools
The majority of people living near these buildings endure a hollow husk of a former school building as their neighbor.
The blight hit the South Side and the West Side hardest. That’s where school enrollment had fallen most dramatically, prompting the closings, and where all but three of the 50 severely underenrolled schools were shuttered.
Walking past the former Ross Elementary in Washington Park, Sharita Covington voices her disgust at what remains. What she has to look at, living nearby, are dingy boards covering doors and windows. What that signals to her is that leaders don’t care about communities like hers.
“It is like every corner, every block,” Covington says. “Literally five vacant buildings, four vacant schools before you get to the expressway. Come on now.”
The former Ross Elementary School on the South Side. The school remains vacant and city-owned 10 years after it was closed. Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Many of the schools appear frozen in time — weathered plastic slides on playgrounds, painted hopscotches fading on schoolyards and signs still advertising the students’ last day: June 19, 2013.
Neighbors like Covington say they keep a distance from the concrete campuses spanning entire blocks of disrepair. Broken windows reveal ceilings stripped of pipes. Graffiti mars brick walls. Trash chokes playgrounds.
This, despite CPS paying to secure and maintain its empty buildings. CPS officials won’t pinpoint the total cost, saying they can’t tally it. And while less than operating a school and maintaining older facilities, the costs to cut grass and replace boards on windows still cut into the projected savings from decommissioning buildings.
The buildings and communities left behind
Ten years after the mass closings, 16 vacant buildings remain city-owned but aren’t in use. These properties have either garnered little interest or have had proposed projects fall apart. Two buildings are still publicly owned but sales are pending.
Another 10 have been sold but not yet reopened. A few new owners haven’t even started the projects they proposed, such as light manufacturing in the former Attucks Elementary in Bronzeville.
Of the 46 buildings shuttered in 2013
- 20 are back in use.
- 26 haven't been returned to use.
- 16 are publicly owned and vacant.
- 10 were sold but aren't in use.
Emanuel’s chosen CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who had closed schools elsewhere before landing in Chicago and ending her career in federal prison, promised the buildings would soon enjoy second lives, guided by a community-led process.
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, shown here visiting a school in 2013, said the city’s shuttered schools would all be returned to use. Al Podgorski/Chicago Sun-Times
What actually happened was predictable: In parts of the city with strong real estate markets, buildings were snapped up at multimillion-dollar prices, destined for luxury apartments and private schools.
Elsewhere, it’s been a struggle. That’s a reflection of the many strikes against the old and dilapidated buildings, combined with their locations in neighborhoods already in need of development but awash in vacant properties. Layer on that a bungled and delayed process that outsourced community input to alderpersons.
Experts say school districts lack the necessary expertise and imagination for such difficult transformations. Cohesive city efforts complete with funding for projects that benefit the community would have been better, says Rachel Weber, professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois Chicago.
“If the city had engaged in a program that involved sort of community revisioning, or imagining what could happen to these buildings, I think that would have been a good idea,” she says. “I also think there should have been some kind of priority given or weight to affordable housing developers and developers of senior housing. … The city prioritized private, sort of market-led redevelopment instead.”
Lucrative sales from pricey neighborhoods could have subsidized harder-to-fund projects, instead of folding the money back into CPS’s budget, Weber says, “kind of a Robin Hood approach to, to helping some of these schools that were or are obviously going to need a lot more help."
Taxpayers chip in to redevelop some schools
Taxpayers subsidized redevelopment at some locations with costly rehabs and tax credits to build housing. For example, a developer converted the former West Pullman School into apartments for low-income veterans and senior citizens using federal and state tax credits.
But securing government money for those kinds of projects was often haphazard and a scramble. Developers had to find programs on their own, and they weren’t prioritized.
The owners of the building that housed the former Marconi Elementary School now rent the facility to the Chicago Park District. In July 2021, park district campers had a water balloon fight with police officers on the former school’s playground. Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Before leaving office, Lightfoot was able to secure financing for one major project. She recently allocated $12 million in city tax increment financing to convert the former Emmet Elementary in Austin into a $41 million workforce development facility to be called the Aspire Center.
CPS held onto five buildings, including one for a facilities headquarters and another rehabbed for administrative staff. Three existing schools moved out of shared or leased space into closed school buildings.
For $18.5 million, the Chicago Housing Authority converted Pope Elementary in Douglass Park into a call center and offices where clients can seek help. The rehab preserved the school’s historic marble entryway and mosaic floors.
But taxpayers also pay to rent back one of the closed schools. Here’s how: In 2015, CPS sold the former Marconi Elementary School in West Garfield Park to Pastor David Todd Whitley, who had raised a rare voice in favor of closing schools.
Whitley’s organization, United For Better Living, paid $100,000 for the building, though it had appraised for at least five times as much. Initially, the group leased it to a company that managed alternative school programs. That arrangement ended in 2018. Meanwhile, Whitley’s group rented the building to the Chicago Park District as a makeshift fieldhouse.
Since 2015, the park district has paid Whitley’s group $168,000 in rent, using taxpayer dollars.
Neighbors step in after CPS leaves
For now, the city’s efforts to sell any of its 16 remaining buildings appear dormant, though CPS’s spokeswoman says it may put them back out to bid. Between 2014 and 2018, the school district generated $31 million in building sales and paid at least $790,000 in commissions to the commercial broker CBRE, according to calculations provided by the firm.
The last public push to sell came in 2017, when Byrd-Bennett’s replacement Forrest Claypool launched a fresh effort that replaced community meetings with a competitive bidding process. He sought to sell 30 buildings and the Board of Education approved bids for 22. Eight have since fallen apart. Two sales are still pending.
For example, the board signed off on two deals for Morgan Elementary, a modern glass building built on a park in Auburn Gresham by a Mies Van Der Rohe acolyte. CPS accepted a church’s offer in 2018, then one from the union representing city bus and train drivers. But property records show neither group ever took ownership.
The former Burnham Elementary School on the South Side has remained vacant for the last 10 years. Anthony Vazquez/ Sun-Times
Meanwhile, it falls to neighbors to do what they can.
Judith Moss calls 311 from her meticulously maintained home to report graffiti at the former Burnham Elementary, the school her relatives attended in South Deering. The garbage she handles herself.
“If I see it from my window, I go and pick it up,” says Moss, depositing wrappers and cans in a plastic bag. “I’m out here every day picking up.”
“It's an old building just sitting there for no reason.”— Terrell Thomas, who lives near the shuttered Morgan Elementary School building in Auburn Gresham on the South Side.
Nearby, from a porch overlooking Morgan Elementary, class of 1983 grad Terrell Thomas says, "It's an old building just sitting there for no reason.”
Broken glass litters the concrete, and plywood darkens a few windows. A gang persists in tagging the walls.
But on the playground, a grill has popped up for barbecues, and when the sun shines, neighbors erect a screen to watch sports together. Might as well use Morgan until it becomes something else, says a gentleman named Bonzo, class of 1979:
“We gotta watch out for our baby.”
The fate of five shuttered Chicago public schools
City-owned, but vacant and dilapidated
On a fall day, a 12-year-old shoots a basketball into the broken hoop outside the low-slung beige brick building where Henson Elementary used to live. All around him broken glass glitters in the sun.
“It’s literally just a mess,” the boy says of the building in the West Side’s North Lawndale community. He wishes the empty building could become a grocery store or a restaurant. “It’s not anywhere you can go to eat unless it is a liquor store.”
A row of empty Hennessy bottles line a window ledge. Nearby, a few guys sit on canvas folding chairs. They watch as plainclothes officers arrest a man. A car drives by and someone hollers at the group: Stay out of trouble.
Henson is one of 26 school buildings shuttered in 2013 that remain unused, many of them vacant. More than half are like Henson: They’re still owned by the city or the school system.
Henson illustrates how difficult it is to redevelop in a residential neighborhood, particularly in a low-income community. Residents often know what they want but options are limited because of the size and layout of buildings and the high cost of renovation.
Originally, Chicago City Council Members were supposed to hold hearings to get community input, but neighborhood activists say they don’t remember any meetings. When Michael Scott Jr. took over as alderman in 2015, there were no plans for Henson.
In 2017, facing questions about the lack of movement, CPS hired a real estate brokerage firm to try to sell 30 campuses, including Henson.
Today, most remain vacant or undeveloped.
A lone group bid on Henson, offering $50,000. The Single Room Housing Assistance Corporation wanted to transform Henson into affordable single-room housing or small apartments, and a community space, says Eric Rubenstein, the firm’s president. He says his group also bought another school building and is seeking funding to start the renovation.
When the deal went before the City Council, Scott (24th) blocked it. Eventually, the school district returned the deposit.
Scott says people in the community didn’t want one-room apartments, residences often rented to people with very low incomes or who were formerly incarcerated. Scott believes this housing is necessary, but it doesn’t belong nestled among homes with families.
Rubenstein says he cannot understand the strong resistance. “Being poor is not a crime,” he says. “A lot of them are on disability. They wake up in the morning, get a coffee, go to a library. They are just like anyone else.”
“Several people had lofty goals and aspirations, but they couldn’t find the money to get it done.”— Former Ald. Michael Scott, whose 24th ward includes the former Henson Elementary School.
Scott says redevelopment is challenging. “Several people had lofty goals and aspirations, but they couldn’t find the money to get it done,” he says. As in many closed schools, people over the years have stolen anything of value.
“By the time they were looking at Henson, every piece of metal, every piece of copper had been removed. It was nothing but a shell,” Scott says, noting that an inspection determined it would take about $10 million to get Henson up and running.
Redevelopment will require government subsidies, Scott says. He has since resigned from City Council and is now on the Board of Ed. He says the school system doesn’t have any extra money.
Neighbors are frustrated. Sidney Nash, 65, who has lived in the area all of his life, says it is a quiet community with many longtime homeowners. He’d like to see the building become a community center offering after-school programs.
At times, drug dealers hang out on Henson’s campus and a homeless woman lived underneath the front awning at one point. Yet, it's the building’s condition that disturbs Nash the most.
“Just look at it,” he says. “It is dilapidated, a building gone to waste. It is an eyesore. Keep it clean, at least.”
A bustling community center
Women donning white hairnets and gloves dished out one meal after another on a recent weekday in a small cafeteria in Englewood on the South Side.
“We have red beans and rice, we have corn, we have cornbread,” the lunch lady tells the crowd. “We have baked chicken and we have pork roast.”
But the patrons at this former public school building are all adults.
Four years ago, the old Mays Elementary School building became the Center of Englewood. It hosts daily meals as well as medical and mental health clinics, basketball practices, church services, violence prevention work, a day care center, even a knitting club. About 6,000 people use its services every week.
Mays is the dream when it comes to the buildings closed in 2013, even if it initially sat vacant for half a decade. If communities couldn’t keep their schools, many who lived nearby wanted at least for the building to continue serving neighborhood residents.
But Mays’ success is rare. Of the 46 buildings closed in 2013, 20 are back in use — but only five facilities are providing community services. Three more are undergoing major renovations that are incomplete.
On the Southeast Side, a $5 million state grant is helping convert a former special education school into a child care and after-school center run by Chicago Youth Centers. And on the West Side, work has begun to transform a broad red brick building that once housed Emmet Elementary into the Aspire Center.
Back in Englewood, the former Mays building didn’t get that kind of a makeover. The air in the low-slung building is stuffy and smells like cleaning supplies. The interior looks like a school, circa the 1960s. The walls are still lined with fliers and pictures from its former occupant.
Brian Anderson’s nonprofit Shepherd’s Hope turned the shuttered Mays Elementary School building into a community center that serves 6,000 people a week. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ
Brian Anderson, who runs the nonprofit Shepherd’s Hope, bought the building in 2018 for $55,000.
“The Lord wanted us to have this building. So that’s the reason we’re here,” he says.
Anderson says he was called to serve after becoming friends with a homeless man he passed on his way to a construction job. It opened his eyes to the scores of unhoused people in Chicago who need support, he says.
When Anderson first toured the building, it was immaculate. That changed after he closed on the property.
“Someone got in the building and stole 9,000 feet of electrical cable and 2,000 feet of copper pipe for hot water,” he says.
The ministry raised money to replace the stolen cables and pipes. Anderson repainted the walls.
Shepherd’s Hope operates a $3 million yearly budget funded entirely through donations. The building needs $50,000 in renovations.
The 300-seat auditorium and classrooms are now sanctuaries for church services. The gymnasium hosts basketball camps and games. Almost 200 patients use the medical, vision and mental health clinic and 400 families visit the food pantry each week.
Seventeen organizations use the building, and more than 50 people help run it, most receiving stipends. Among those using its services are alumni of the former school — adults who once walked the very same halls years ago as students.
A private school
The dismissal plan is impeccable, efficient and smooth. As kids file outside, some parents wait on the sidewalk next to the new playground. Others sit in a line of cars, ranging from the typical family sedan to luxury SUVs. A school leader holds a clipboard and walkie talkie while checking off arriving parents.
Half a block away, neighbors are grilling in a grassy area and playing music on a loudspeaker, some with shirts off enjoying the sun. The smell of weed drifts over, and parents glance in their direction.
The Field School, a private Christian school, is a newcomer to this West Side Austin community. It opened last August, taking the place of Key Elementary, one of the 46 Chicago public school buildings shuttered in 2013.
In the 10 years since that mass closing, just 20 buildings have been redeveloped, including three into private schools. The two others, the German International School and the Chicago Waldorf School, are on the North Side. Parents are paying upwards of $30,000 a year, though they make provisions for lower-income families.
Chicago prohibited converting closed buildings into publicly funded, privately run charter schools, which were seen as competition for neighborhood schools.
But private schools were allowed, perhaps because no one imagined they would be interested.
The Field School has fewer bells and whistles than the Waldorf and German schools. Jeremy Mann, a former special education teacher, started the school in nearby Oak Park because he wanted a Christian-based alternative for his children. He moved it to Austin to give area families an opportunity to go to an integrated school.
At Field, tuition ranges from $1,160 to $19,800 per year, depending on income. The average is $6,534. Half of the 220 students come from low-income families, according to the school’s website, and Mann says they try to prioritize enrolling kids from Austin. About a quarter are Black, one-third are white and 19% Latino.
Families and supporters donated $3 million from 2021 to 2022 to help with a $4.5 million renovation of part of the old Key building, which sat boarded up since 2013. The rest of the money came from a tax credit. The other part of the building is still unused, requiring $14 million in repairs, Mann says.
But it’s unclear whether people in Austin wanted this option. In 2018, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) complained that CPS didn’t engage the community before selling the building to The Field School. And its opening comes as the community's public schools still struggle with dwindling enrollment.
Area schools have lost one-third of their students in the past decade. The Field School is located across from Douglass High School, which has a mere 27 students.
LaToya Lee oversees dismissal at The Field School, formerly Key Elementary School. The Field School is one of three private schools that moved into school buildings closed in 2013. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ
Dennis Turner, who has grandchildren at the Field School, knows the community's struggles. Turner and wife Gloria graduated from Austin High School in 1973. Back then, Austin had a thriving, working class Black community and a vibrant high school. Today, the high school has only 190 students.
The Turners are grateful for what The Field School offers their grandchildren.
“It's a pretty great school that brings together people from all different races, backgrounds, from all across the board where the kids can learn together and have a good education,” Gloria Turner says during pickup one day.
Their grandson has only 12 classmates, Dennis Turner says, and both kids are learning scripture and have lots of activities.
Gloria Turner says their daughter, the children’s mother, works as a substitute teacher for Chicago Public Schools and finds the children disrespectful. “It’s ridiculous,” Gloria Turner says. “If I had kids, I wouldn’t send them to public schools either.”
Songhai and Yale Schools
Sold, but vacant and in disrepair
The Songhai Learning Institute is one of those grand old brick school buildings with elaborate carvings framing its arched doorways and ornate columns separating its windows.
But Songhai has become an eyesore. Boards covering lower story windows show their age. Higher up windows gape open. Waist-high weeds poke up from the sidewalk that has buckled and is strewn with trash.
It’s one of the 26 school buildings — of the 46 closed in 2013 — that remain unused 10 years after the mass closings, and it arguably looks the worst.
The disarray is new, says Deidre Moore, whose tidy bungalow abuts the former elementary school on the Far South side. Moore graduated in 1983, when the school was called Scanlan Elementary. It was renamed in 1985 after the Songhai Empire, a 16th Century kingdom in what’s now Mauritania and Mali.
Growing up, Moore remembers the neighborhood brimming, the school full of kids who, like her, learned to swim in the basement pool: “Every empty lot had a house on it.”
By the time Moore, now in her 50s, moved back to her childhood home in West Pullman after her mother died in 2013, the houses had thinned out.
Songhai, at least, was taken care of.
But last year, Moore called to complain about overgrown grass. That’s how she learned the property had been sold.
“When CPS still maintained it and it was closed, they would at least cut the grass,” she says.
CPS sold Songhai — and Yale Elementary in Englewood — to companies owned by Van L. Vincent, who took ownership in March 2019. Because they are no longer owned by CPS, it doesn’t send anyone to secure broken windows or clean up broken glass littering the pavement. Among the 26 vacant buildings, at least nine are like those two: They’ve been sold but hardly improved or not improved at all. Some seem worse off than when they were publicly owned.
Vincent’s stated plans for Songhai include housing for homeless veterans and a “clean energy facility” and for Yale a facility for “clean energy demonstration, manufacturing/logistics and training.”
In Englewood, Yale neighbor Dulce Morales, says the building and its parking lot remain a nuisance.
Dulce Morales lives near the closed Yale Elementary School in Englewood. She says the closed building negatively impacts the family farm and public garden she oversees nearby. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ
“They have been locking and breaking that lock for the past two, three years, and they've dumped stolen vehicles there,” Morales says of the lock to the school parking lot. “They have also used our places as dumping sites.”
“Our places” are right across from Yale: a public garden covering a quarter acre where community members can pick fresh herbs and produce, and Morales’ family farm — home to chickens, a greenhouse and raised beds for vegetables and flowers.
From time to time, Morales sees someone stop by the school. Broken windows were fixed last summer. The grass gets cut. But plans to transform it otherwise appear stalled.
“It's just sitting there,” she says. “Nobody's utilizing any of the resources that come out of having a nice big building like that.”
Vincent, who asked the school board to extend his deadline to put Songhai back into use until 2025, says he hasn’t yet won the public funding needed to realize his plans.
“I bought these schools, and we’ve been carrying these schools and we plan to deliver for our community,” he says.
Coming May 25: What happened to the kids who went to Chicago's 50 closed schools?
About Chicago’s 50 Closed Schools project
This series was reported by Sarah Karp, Nader Issa and Lauren FitzPatrick. Additional data reporting by Alden Loury. Data visualizations and design by Jesse Howe. Photographs by Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere, Manuel Martinez, Pat Nabong, Ashlee Rezin, Brian Rich and Anthony Vazquez. Editing and production by Paul Saltzman, Candi Meriwether, Jennifer Tanaka and Mendy Kong. The project editor is Kate Grossman.