Ruben Salazar Elementary Bilingual Education Center (formerly North Division High School, later James Sexton Elementary School)
160 West Wendell Street
Historical profile by Elizabeth A. Patterson
Salazar Bilingual Education Center reflects many changes in the history of Chicago’s schools over time. One of the city’s oldest public school buildings, this structure has had several different educational programs and three different names through its long history. In 1881, members of the Board of Education determined that the city needed three high schools to accommodate the growing population of older students. They developed a new program of three-year “classical” courses and four-year “full” courses. (1) At the corner of Wells and Wendell, then considered the city’s North Side, they built what was first known as North Division High School.
School architect J.S. Ender designed the 3-1/2 story Italianate style high school. Ender created a vibrant appearance by using red brick with lively limestone elements. Rising above a rusticated stone base, the brick building has a projecting central mass that divides the primary façade into three major components. These are demarcated by rectangular brick pilasters with limestone capitals, most of which are plain, although one pair is quite fanciful. Limestone hoods of diverse shapes cap a series of long narrow windows at each level. An elaborate cornice extends across the roofline. A wildly-ornate parapet crowns the cornice above the entranceway.
The new North Division High School opened in September 1883. The following year, the Board directed that one of the basement rooms be equipped for use as a manual training and woodworking room, making North Division one of the first vocational training schools in Chicago. Overcrowding and a need for better facilities forced the closure of the high school in 1899; the students were transferred elsewhere.
In 1902, the solid structure reopened as Sexton Elementary School, named for James A. Sexton (1844–1899), an orphan who became a successful manufacturer and served as the Postmaster of Chicago between 1889 and 1895. (2) A decade later, in 1912, Sexton Elementary was modernized extensively: steel stairs replaced the wooden originals; engineers installed one of the first central heating systems in a Chicago school; electric lighting supplanted illuminating gas. The building served as an elementary school for many years thereafter. Beginning in 1964, Sexton School also housed an Educational and Vocational Guidance Center. (3)
The school’s elementary function ceased in 1966. The building closed in 1974 for the second time. Four years later, it reopened as the Center for Urban Education, a planning, conference, and training facility for teachers and students. That same year, the Board of Education thoroughly rehabilitated the school. which was designated a Chicago landmark.
In 1993, the Salazar Bilingual Education Center opened in this landmark building. (4) Twenty years earlier, the board of education had established the bilingual center at 3316 South Ashland. They named the center for the noted Mexican-American journalist Ruben Salazar (1928–1970). A reporter and news director for a Spanish-language television station in Los Angeles, Salazar died when a police tear gas canister hit him in the head during a march protesting the number of Latino soldiers killed in Vietnam. A year after his death, he was posthumously awarded a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. (5)
- Twenty-Seventh Annual Report of the Board of Education for the Year Ending July 31, 1881, p. 25.
- “Civil War ‘Boy Captain’ Recalled in School Name,” Chicago Tribune, April 27, 1967.
- “School Board OK’s Changes In Boundaries; Plan Leaves 7 Vacant Rooms at Sexton,” Chicago Tribune, August 20, 1964.
- “2 More Philadelphia Policemen Shot,” Chicago Tribune, August 31, 1970; “4 Chicago Schools Get New Names,” Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1972.