Obama College Prep site in doubt | Bleader

Obama College Prep site in doubt

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27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. and Mayor Rahm Emanuel at an el station in Logan Square in December. Burnett says the city is now examining other sites for Obama College Prep.
  • Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media
  • 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett Jr. and Mayor Rahm Emanuel at an el station in Logan Square in December. Burnett says the city is now examining other sites for Obama College Prep.
Obama College Prep may not end up in Stanton Park, the site the city originally designated for its 11th selective enrollment high school, but it's still slated for the Near North Side.

Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. told me yesterday that the city and school board are seeking a better spot in the neighborhood, which is in his 27th Ward. "We're looking at several different sites to see if any of them are feasible," he said.

Mayor Emanuel and the Chicago Public Schools announced plans for Obama Prep on April 24. The original proposed site—about a block north of Division and a block east of Halsted—has been roundly criticized for two reasons: because it would gobble up a park, and because another selective enrollment school, Payton College Prep, is nearby, and many low-income areas of the city have no selective enrollment high schools. (The Near North Side is one of Chicago's richest neighborhoods.)

The search for a different site is motivated by the park issue and not the equity complaints, Burnett said.

Selective enrollment schools are open to students citywide with the highest test scores and grades. A tier system ensures that students of all socioeconomic levels are admitted. At Burnett's request, Mayor Emanuel agreed that students from the neighborhood would get 30 percent of the seats at Obama Prep. The borders of what would be considered the "neighborhood" for that purpose, however, haven't been decided.

Burnett noted that although there is great wealth in the Near North Side, it also has many poor residents. He wanted to make sure Obama Prep benefited the low-income families in the Cabrini-Green row houses and the Marshall Field Garden Apartments together with families in the area's several mixed-income developments, while also attracting affluent families to the area. With 30 percent of the seats going to the neighborhood, Obama Prep will be "a carrot stick to encourage people to move into a mixed-income community," he said.

But only 146 of the original 584 Cabrini-Green row houses are still occupied; the rest have been closed. A Chicago Housing Authority official told us that only 46 row house residents are between the ages of five and 14. I asked Burnett if he thought any row houses would remain by 2017. "I'm not sure, but hopefully we'll have built more replacement housing in the community" for low-income residents by then, he said.

A few days after the city announced plans for the school, Meghan Harte, Emanuel's deputy chief of staff, conceded at a meeting in the neighborhood that area residents should have been consulted about the site. There'd been a "communication gap," she said, and "I’m here to take full responsibility for that on behalf of the city and on behalf of the different agencies."

Burnett told me he thinks the mayor and the school board may have rushed their site selection in an effort to "beat everyone to the punch" at creating a school named for Obama. (They haven't beaten everyone. In 2010, Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy, a middle school, opened in Los Angeles.)

As for the second bone of contention about Obama Prep—its placement in the Near North Side—it doesn't appear the city is reconsidering that choice. City officials have said they wanted the school to be centrally located, and that tax increment financing was available to build it in this area. I've asked to talk with Harte about the site selection, but my requests to the mayor's press office and press secretary have been ignored.

Chicago's selective enrollment schools raise many thorny equity issues. Four of the high schools—Northside, Payton, Jones, and Whitney Young—are rated first through fourth respectively in Illinois by U.S. News & World Report.The mayor and CPS point to them with pride, not only because of the success of their students but also because they're extremely diverse, socioeconomically and racially, in a city whose schools are overwhelmingly poor and minority. They achieve this diversity, however, by giving whites disproportionate access: white students are only 9 percent of the citywide enrollment, but they're 33 percent of the combined enrollment in these four schools. More about selective enrollment schools, and what they achieve and the problems they pose, next week.

Will Greenberg and Osita Nwanevu helped research this post.

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