A trip to Dr. Charles E. Gavin School on the east side of Chicago Heights is a bizarre experience.
Math and reading books lay withered and worn in the lot behind the school, bringing about a post-apocalyptic image, almost as if the area was evacuated in a hurry.
Two Years Ago
The initial decision to close Gavin School in June of 2009 was a difficult one, according to former Chicago Heights District 170 School Board President Larry Stringfellow.
“That was one of the toughest decisions I made,” Stingfellow said. “I knew the Gavin family. My kids went to Gavin.”
In Gavin’s final years, the school had well under 100 students, and was costing too much to keep opening, according to Supt. Thomas Amadio.
“We cannot run a school with 80 kids,” Amadio said, adding that the district intends to make smart moves when it comes to spending. “We’ve been on the financial recognition list for five years. We’re good stewards with taxpayers’ money.”
In 2009, when the school was closed, Amadio told the Chicago Tribune he estimated the district would save $500,000 a year.
Two years later, Amadio stands by that assessment, pointing to iPads, iPods and SMART Boards in classrooms as an example of what can be done when a district is willing to make tough decisions to save money.
“Arguably, we have more technology integrated into our curriculum than maybe any school district I’ve been to, because of the money we saved with (closing) Gavin,” Amadio said.
The Empty Building
In 2011, the rotting condition of Gavin didn’t stop retired Chicago Bulls shooting guard Craig Hodges from wanting to revive the old building. Hodges and his friend Kris Alexander said they were planning to convert it into something the east side of Chicago Heights sorely needs.
“We wanted to do math and science tutoring, as well as a career center,” Hodges said, clarifying that he was not referring to any community or recreational center. “We have enough of those.”
Alexander elaborated on the idea, saying the center would be aimed toward training young people for specific jobs.
In August, Hodges and Alexander showed up to a city council meeting and shared their ideas for the building. They were encouraged by the council to pursue the plan and try to purchase the land from District 170.
Two months later, the District 170 Board of Education decided to tear down Gavin School.
Deciding to Demolish
Gavin could be gone within the next two months, according to Amadio. The building is currently being abated for asbestos with demolition planned to take place before the end of January.
Alexander was devastated by the news.
“What is there to say?” Alexander asked. “It just sounds like they’re willing to tear down tradition. (Gavin is) part of history and nobody seems to care.”
Hodges, who has since returned to California, where he is an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, shared his friend's disappointment.
“It was one of those things where we knew it was something they might do, but we didn’t think they actually would,” Hodges said.
While Hodges and Alexander may have had big dreams for that building, renovating a building in that condition is easier said than done, according to Amadio.
“That building, it would be millions and millions of dollars to get it back up to code,” Amadio said. “It would cost more to restore it than to get a brand new school.”
Amadio was open about his dialogue with Hodges and Alexander, saying that he’s known the two for several years and actually met with Hodges about the building. But ultimately, the school board decided not to transfer ownership of the land to Hodges or anyone else.
“The school board decided we can’t give the property up,” Amadio said. “We definitely can’t get rid of that land if we need it in the future.”
So by the end of January, District 170 will own a piece of land with no school on it. According to Amadio, the future of that land is currently being determined.
Plans for the Land
“The City’s plan is to build up the east side commercially," Amadio said. “We’re trying our best to partner with the city government, and we’ve come up with some plans.”
But according to Chicago Heights Mayor David Gonzalez, that isn't exactly the case.
"There is no plan to build up that area commercially," Gonzalez said. "But that doesn’t mean that in the future it isn’t something that’s possible.”
Third Ward Ald. Wanda Rodgers said there are plans to build up the east side, but that they have nothing to do with Gavin.
"That is not our pupose, to try to make that area industrial," Rodgers said. "The new East-Side Redevelopment Plan, we started near Lincoln School."
Rodgers said she was just as blind-sided by the decision to tear down Gavin School as Hodges and Alexander were, mainly because she was hoping to see the school reopened at some point.
“We have families that just moved in over there (near Gavin),” Rodger said. “I wanted to talk to (Amadio) about the future of that area because right now the kids have to cross over Lincoln Highway to go to school at Lincoln.”
Rodgers said Amadio has not returned her calls, but that she would like to talk to him about the decision, adding that many residents seem to think it was the city's decision to tear down Gavin.
"We didn’t tell them to tear that down," Rodgers said. "We don’t have a say-so. The city has nothing to do with that.”
Kris Alexander was more candid about his feelings, regarding the east side of Chicago Heights and the future of the area.
"It’s like the east side is just being thrown out... period," Alexander said. "They're tearing things down and not putting anything up. They really aren’t hearing anything that can be done positive with the building. We still haven’t given up yet."