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Historic Chicago Heights School Prepared to be Demolished

A former NBA player, a Heights resident and an alderperson are all dead-set against the decision.

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 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 .”

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."

Jennifer Gulotta Fisher November 22, 2011 at 09:25 PM
"That building, it would be millions and millions of dollars to get it back up to code,” We get fed this lie so often. That is why we have so many lovely vacant lots. Hmm, how much will it cost to demolish? How much is being spent in asbestos abatement (not a waste if building will be reused)? We teach our kids to recycle, save energy, but we are demonstrating to them by demolishing this buiding is just the opposite. All that energy, work, materials already in place are wasted. Why can we never take that money so easily earmarked for demolition and put it toward a new use? Something, instead of the nothing we are left with after demoliton. By reusing this buiding we are demonstrating the potential in rehabilitation - real life recycling. The easiest solution is often not the brightest.
Josh Deabel November 23, 2011 at 02:32 AM
It is upsetting to see yet another piece of history potentially being torn down in our town. Chicago Heights and the East side need people like Kris Alexander and Craig Hodges to be supported on such an important endeavor. This building is more than a building, it serves as a reminder of the past and more importantly has the potential as a spring board of opportunity for the future. It is no secret that more opportunites need to be made for the youth of Chicago Heights and the region. This can also be a great opportunity for District 170 and the city to work together to save Gavin School and give hope and future to it's children.
Tru Britt November 23, 2011 at 04:23 AM
That particular area of Wentworth Street has been riddled with drugs, prostitutes, dope heads and other undesirables for over 30 years. The projects of the east side ruined that area and the people that sold dope in front of their own children, men and women that were addicted to it as well. Dr. Calvin would be appalled but the time to act was when all of that was going on and it still exist down in the Wentworth area today. The Craig Hodges and Kris Alexander's of the world left the East Side a long time ago and most of the people that were living there fell victim of dope dealers like Otis Moore and the affect that he had on that community is the result of that school going to the dogs. The tearing down of that school is the result of parents being doped out and not attending board meetings. They were too doped up to take care of the things in the community that mattered.
Ja'Fonta Bizzy Stat Wells November 27, 2011 at 07:20 PM
This will be a sad day....
Ja'Fonta Bizzy Stat Wells November 27, 2011 at 07:21 PM
You not from chicago heights i bet......
MrsR November 28, 2011 at 12:41 AM
I find it ironic that the District 170 would rather spend millions of TAXPAYER dollars to tear down a building than to sell it to people who have a specific purpose for the building: educating at-risk youth! New owners would be responsible for the abatement of asbestos and bringing the building up to code. Cannot imagine that if the enrollment of the school was so low it was closed that the District would have any plans to build there in the future. It's another kick in the teeth to Chicago Heights citizen by a political machine that boasts how much they care about the citizens, but cannot see past their own greedy paws to allow children a place to learn a trade or gain interest in a field that would help them become a productive adult. Exactly WHAT is the plan for the East side, Mr. Gonzalez and Ms. Rodgers? Are you planning to tear down everything so Chicago Heights can be home to the world's largest parking lot? Where is the leadership we so need in this city? Oh, I forgot, there must have been a meeting of the Tollway Authority...
Winston Wolf November 29, 2011 at 01:11 AM
This may surprise you, MrsR, but I agree with you to some extent. Chicago Heights municipal government and School District 170 are separate entities, but it's a shame that they couldn't come together in a more constructive way to find a use for this property. I'm not sure why Mr. Amadio believes the district may need to use the space any time in the foreseeable future, if the neighborhood around it continues to suffer. What social or economic benefit does a vacant lot bring? It's time that we stopped behaving as if the economic realities of our time are a death sentence for certain areas. It will no doubt take a lot of work to renovate the area, but a strong education system which works with local government is absolutely essential to that renovation. I’m not familiar with the particulars of the Hodges/Alexander plan, but along with added business activity, something like it is exactly what Chicago Heights needs. I hope that the city’s are proactive and seek to work with Mr. Amadio and SD 170.

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