Shuttered Westchester facility finds new life as alternative school

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Shuttered since 2021, there are now plans to open an alternative school on the site of the former St. Joseph High School in suburban Westchester.

“We will open our doors to youth from difficult circumstances that will enter our state of the art facility and learning environment,” said Lezlie Fuhr, the director of programming for the new school, which is set to be called “West40 at St. Joseph.”

The alternative school is part of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s plan, announced earlier this year, to expand behavioral and mental health services to children in need.

“I believe he came to West 40 because we have had a great success rate for the last 25 years and serving students with complex needs,” Fuhr said.

State-funded, the classrooms will have a new purpose serving foster children and other youth in need.

“Right now, we have kids that are sleeping in conference rooms and hospital wings. They are incorrectly placed because there's no place for them to go. So there's just a great, great need,” Fuhr said.

West40 purchased the Westchester campus for $8 million. Originally two Catholic schools sat on the property. Immaculate Heart of Mary was an all-girls school and St. Joseph High School was an all-boys school. That school was also well-known as a basketball powerhouse, made famous by the 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams.”

In 2005, IHM closed its doors due to declining enrollment. St. Joseph High School moved into the former IHM buildings and welcomed girls and boys into the school. Then in 2021, amid the pandemic, the decision was made to close St. Joseph as well.

As for the new plans for the site, a former convent will become a dormitory for no more than 40 students at a time.

“We're finding now with our research that adolescent boys are our target population,” Fuhr said.

Demolition is slated for two buildings at the north end of the property, the original St. Joseph High School buildings, which are dilapidated and have been hit repeatedly by vandals. The proposal for that end of the property includes a community garden and a walking trail.

“In all reality, you want to see something good happen with the property in general and I think West40’s is the perfect adaptation for that,” said Jimmy Milas, a former student who was a junior at St. Joseph when the school closed in 2021. He finished his senior year at Montini Catholic High School in Lombard.

For an Eagle Scout project, Milas created a “cancer awareness garden” in a courtyard on the east side of the campus. He planted a tree for the community to tie ribbons to its branches and installed a bench where people could reflect and pray.

When Milas learned West40 had purchased the property, he reached out to inquire about the garden’s future.

“I did this for the community. I was hoping it could stay on the property. And they honored that and it seems like it's going to stay,” Milas said.

Renovations to other areas of the property are planned, including repairs to windows broken by vandals. Those plans are making their way through the zoning process.

“The village of Westchester is wanting us to go through a formal zoning process and so our lawyers are working together to work out those details to make that happen,” Fuhr said. “We want to expedite it as quickly as possible. We're hoping to be open in the next 18 to 24 months.”

While saying goodbye to the 61 years of tradition at St. Joseph was difficult, Milas believes West40’s plans for the campus are a continuation of the Catholic school’s mission.

“It fits the morals of what St. Joe's was and, at this point, St. Joe's is no longer a place. It's an idea of education for everybody, especially the people who have been dealt a really bad hand,” Milas said.

West40 has held three town halls to discuss the project with the community and plans to hold an open house in the future.

The agency has also created a list of Frequently Asked Questions about the project on its website, found here

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