Westchester had hopes for tax-paying development
May 22, 2023 || By Amaris E. Rodriguez
The former St. Joseph High School campus in Westchester has been purchased for $8 million, with plans for it to be the home of an alternative school run by West40, a state funded entity which is an intermediary between the state board of education and 38 public school districts and three co-ops in western Cook County. The school, targeted to serve vulnerable students, is projected to open in Fall 2024.
The ‘landmark project,’ as Dr. Mark Klaisner, executive director for West40, calls it, has been a long time in the works as the agency has been working with several state agencies to design a state-of-the-art school for at-risk students, such as foster students and those who might have social-emotional concerns.
“We are looking at an intensive, small population to support kids that don’t have services elsewhere,” Klaisner said, adding the student population will be approximately 40 students. West40 also plans to provide additional services for the community. “There are a lot of possibilities that we are working with … we don’t want to duplicate things that other people are doing but we want to be a service-minded organization that provides services for our kids who are maybe struggling.”
The old St. Joseph High School campus, located at 10900 W. Cermak Rd., closed its doors at the end of the 2021-22 school year, citing a decrease in enrollment and financial issues worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason. The high school had served the community for 61 years and was known as a basketball powerhouse in Chicago’s west suburbs.
Following its closure, the future of the campus has been the subject of many discussions as the village of Westchester looked into various prospects, including a community center as well as a light manufacturing complex.
As previously reported by Village Free Press in 2022, the proposal sparked a debate on how economic developments should happen in the village with many rising in opposition to bringing industrial development to Westchester.
Greg Hribal, village president of Westchester, said the village was surprised to learn about the purchase as they had been working with other potential developments.
“The village was working with several individuals, groups, organizations and development firms,” said Hribal. The recently elected village president said there were about seven interested parties and he had been working with tax-paying businesses which had interest in the large site.
Despite the surprise, the village of Westchester is determined to be a good, welcoming neighbor, said Hribal.
“I certainly believe it is going to be a positive thing for the school and the district that surrounds us,” Hribal. “I do believe we need to work with West40 so that they complement the village as a whole.”
Hribal said he is looking forward to seeing a more concrete development plan from West40.
Earlier this year, a survey was sent to families in the Proviso Township High School District 209 to gauge support for the district to purchase the St. Joseph campus. According to now board president Amanda Grant, Supt. James L. Henderson had brought up the idea for the purchase during an executive session in March.
The survey sparked many questions and concerns throughout the community as D209 had been under scrutiny due to its management of funds along with rising tensions with district faculty following a teacher strike in 2022.
All speculation is now moot as West40, an agency entirely funded by the state of Illinois, begins it work.
Klaisner said West40 works alongside local superintendents, school districts, and principals to help provide professional learning and support systems for at-risk students, as well as overseeing districts to ensure they are in compliance with the state board of education.
One of the districts that West40 supports is D209, said Klaisner, adding they already have programs and grants operating out of Proviso as well as having advocates at each campus helping provide resources and support to the district.
West40, which has operated out of Hillside for over a decade, recently also bought the former Lexington Elementary School, 415 W. Lexington St. in Maywood, in July 2022 to serve as its new home. The building was purchased from Maywood-Melrose Park-Broadview District 89 for approximately $330,000, according to previous reports by Village Free Press.
According to Klaisner, West40 will be vacating the Hillside location, which they currently rent, and moving their main office into Maywood this summer.
West40 plans to open the St. Joseph campus as a school for at-risk students after renovations are completed. Klaisner said they anticipate renovations to take approximately 18 months and it will be tearing down two of the four buildings on the property.
“Two of those [buildings] have dilapidated to the point where they can’t be repaired,” Klaisner said. “The full high school and what was the convent, those two buildings are in really good shape so we will renovate those to establish our school.”
Renovations have already begun and Klaisner said they are working to get everything up and running, as they currently look to the state and other agencies to really tap into what the biggest need for them to address is.
“There have been lots of conversations about students in foster care, students at DCFS,” Klaisner said.
Additionally, conversations have been had regarding how to open the space up for the community as well. Klaisner said there is space and potential to partner with the village for outdoor and indoor activities.
“It would be a great opportunity to be good neighbors with the village of Westchester in spaces that we are not going to use every single day, or all day long,” Klaisner said, adding that the building in Maywood has also been the topic of conversation on how to be a positive space for the community. “They are going to be beautiful facilities; it would make sense to share.”
Conversations surrounding the purchase of St. Joseph began in June 2021, said Klaisner, adding the asking price at the time was out of the budget. In fall 2022, St. Joseph contacted West40 to re-engage in a potential purchase, with serious conversations starting around December 2022. West40 closed on the property on May 5, 2023.
According to Klaisner, being able to keep the legacy of the school as a bonus of the purchase, aligning in purpose and mission with St. Joseph’s values.
“To the best of my knowledge, there were no other buyers at the table when we purchased St. Joseph’s,” said Klaisner.
With renovations expected to take time, Klaisner said they do not anticipate being open and ready for children until Fall 2024 if everything goes according to plan.
“Our byline on our logo is ‘connecting communities.’ We are an organization that does everything we can to support our communities,” Klaisner said. “We are excited about the St. Joseph space, that we can possibly make a difference … take a 30-acre campus and turn it into something wonderful and serving planted.”
When part of the initial work is completed, Klaisner said they will be opening their doors to town-hall style meetings.
“We want to be doors wide-open and totally transparent in the exciting work we are about to do,” Klaisner said.
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