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Neighborhood fights to keep alternative school out of the Gap

Nancy JacksPJoPrologue stinside old GriffFuneral Home 3232 S. King Dr. ththey would like turn innew alternative public school for at-risk

Nancy Jackson and Pa Joof of Prologue, stand inside the old Griffin Funeral Home 3232 S. King Dr., that they would like to turn into a new alternative public school for at-risk students. Thursday, October 18, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 23, 2012 6:08AM

Youth at risk. A funeral home. The Civil War. Angry neighbors.

All are elements of a battle brewing in the tiny Gap neighborhood, a Near South Side sliver where plans for an alternative school and Civil War museum on the site of a funeral home considered a community landmark has met opposition.

Some, including the alderman, say the Gap and nearby Bronzeville have too many schools, breeding problems as students go to and fro.

Others say they don’t want the alternative school’s students in their neighborhood.

The battle brews as Mayor Rahm Emanuel promotes an anti-violence initiative, C.A.R.E., that acknowledges re-enrollment of high school dropouts as a critical step in solving violence plaguing the city.

“I realize that despite our success stories, alternative schools carry a stigma. I believe that stigma is feeding opposition by some residents,” said Nancy Jackson, executive director of Prologue, a nonprofit that has run alternative schools here since 1973.

“Our critics are afraid the school will bring our most troubled youth too close to their doorsteps,” Jackson said.

Her organization, which currently operates three schools — Prologue Early College Education Alternative High School at 1135 N. Cleaver; Charles H. Houston Alternative Charter High School at 9035 S. Langley; and Winnie Mandela Intergenerational Alternative High School at 7847 S. Jeffrey — purchased the long-shuttered Griffin Funeral Home at 3232 S. King to open a new flagship.

Prologue, a founding member of the Alternative Schools Network, is seeking a zoning change in order to serve some 150 primarily low-income students — ages 16 to 24 — where the late Ernest Griffin ran a prominent funeral home for over 40 years.

In agreement with the Griffin Family Trust, it also seeks to open a Civil War museum on the campus honoring African-American soldiers.

It would be a legacy of the funeral director turned Civil War buff, who learned his property was part of the notorious Camp Douglas, established in 1861 on the land between Cottage Grove Avenue and King Drive, 31st and 33rd streets. A Union Army training and prisoner of war camp, it was where 6,000 Confederate soldiers died of disease and cold before the Civil War’s end in 1865.

But the museum effort, linked to training students in cultural preservation, is overshadowed by the proposed alternative school.

“I’ve been in this community 33 years now. I was one of the first to come and always enjoyed what we were trying to build here,” Chuck Bowen, longtime liaison to the African-American community under Mayor Richard M. Daley, said at a recent meeting of the Gap Community Organization. “I am totally against putting an institution like this in our community and will fight till my death to see that this does not happen here.”

The predominantly upper-income Gap — an oasis in the mostly low-income Douglas community — is bordered by 31st and 33rd streets, King Drive and Michigan Avenue. Here, limestone rowhouses and tidy brick townhomes average $600,000.

Since purchasing the property for $2 million, Prologue has appeared twice before the community group that fiercely represents this neighborhood in an effort to assuage fears of its students.

Prologue’s private, charter and contract schools serve teens and young adults who dropped out or didn’t succeed in regular public schools, but now are voluntarily seeking a high school diploma.

“This is not about doubting what you all do. I just don’t want you as my neighbor. It’s that simple. You could do great work, but I don’t want you as my neighbor,” veteran city contractor Ed Forte said at an October community meeting.

That’s when residents voted to send a letter opposing the school to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which had been scheduled to hear Prologue’s petition Friday, before the nonprofit asked for a delay.

Rescheduled to December, the petition is opposed by Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who complained about already existing schools.

“Chicago Public Schools has just put too many high schools in a small area,” he said. “Many of the students who attend these schools do not live in the area, and many of the serious crimes and fights and harassment of residents and businesses take place before and after school as these students travel through the community.”

In 1965, Ernest Griffin purchased what was then a china factory. But it wasn’t until 1978 that he learned about Camp Douglas, discovering his grandfather actually enlisted there and that he himself was born in the area of the former camp.

He set out to learn all he could about the Civil War, becoming an expert and amassing a grand memorabilia collection along the way before his death in 1995.

“It’s a fairly large collection, mostly genealogy,” according to Kelly McGrath, spokeswoman for the Newberry Library.

Heirs Dawn Griffin O’Neal and husband Jim O’Neal donated Griffin’s collection to the museum this summer. It’s yet to be catalogued.

Griffin had gained infamy by flying a Confederate flag on his property — alongside flags of the United States, Africa and a P.O.W. flag.

In 1990, at a ceremony attended by Daley and then-Ald. Bobby Rush, the funeral director installed a Heritage Memorial Wall in his parking lot to honor those who died in the camp.

All that is donated. A property marker remains, however, noting this is the “site of enlistment of Private Charles H. Griffin, Jan. 5, 1864, Co. B. 29th Reg., T. U.S. Col, D Infantry USCT.”

Griffin’s grandfather served in Company B of the 29th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry, the first African-American Union Army division in the state of Virginia.

The family closed the funeral home in 2007. Many developers since have come forward with proposals for the prime land, Fioretti acknowledged. The family finally agreed to sell it to Prologue.

“The Griffin family wanted to work on a project that would create a legacy on their property. It had to do with our interest in trying to link the Civil War with an academic high school,” said Jackson, who tried at the Gap community meeting to cajole residents to visit Prologue’s alternative charter school in the upscale Beverly area.

“There are $2 million homes on the block we’re on,” she said. “There has been no impact on that neighborhood in any kind of adverse way from our presence or our young people being there.”

The motion to oppose her group’s proposal for the Gap passed 50-4.

Aneela Saineghi, who lives next door to the funeral home and voted for Prologue, asked fellow residents to consider the alternative.

“There isn’t any one community in the city of Chicago that doesn’t have kids that need that kind of support,” Saineghi said later. “On this street, we don’t need it, but a few blocks over, that community does need it. If this group can show these children there’s a better way, a better life with an education, then by all means.”

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