Barack Obama — first black commander-in-chief, adopted Chicago son, one-time boss of the mayor — will have at least one prominent public building named after him in Chicago.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel made sure of that Thursday — well before the president decides where to put his library — as Emanuel announced plans to build a selective-enrollment high school, the city’s 11th, on the North Side using $60 million in tax-increment financing money and eventually serving 1,200, giving much needed hope to parents who want their kids to have a chance at the best high school education the city has to offer.
The announcement and its proposed Near North location a stone’s throw from another academic jewel — came as a surprise that cheered many parents while disappointing others who hoped for a closer option for their children to travel to south of Roosevelt Road.
The move furthers Emanuel’s education legacy — a complicated history that includes a seven-day teacher’s strike, a record shutdown of 50 schools, slashed budgets, schools handed over to private operators, an expansion of selective enrollment high schools Jones College Prep and Payton College Prep, and now the creation of a new one on the North Side, a move sure to bolster an Emanuel goal of keeping middle-class families in the city.
Ald. Marty Quinn (13th) fears losing his middle class families to suburban Oak Lawn and Summit, so he’s been asking for a selective-enrollment high school on the Southwest Side where there are none.
“For whatever reason, parents of 8th grade students don’t feel like there’s enough options, quality options, and therefore are putting a for sale sign in the ground and looking to the suburbs,” said Quinn, who testified before the Board of Education in March, citing lengthy commutes of up to one hour and 43 minutes each way form his ward office at 65th and Pulaski to most of the schools where students must test in.
Tim Nowaczyk’s son was accepted into Westinghouse College Prep and Lane Tech High School, said the father and LSC member at Nathan Hale Elementary school.
“He ultimately wasn’t able to attend because of the distance of where we live,” Nowaczyk, who lives in the Clearing community on the Southwest Side, said. “It was very disappointing. He did end up going to an [International Baccalaureate] program at Curie so that was a little closer to home.”
“I would love to see a selective enrollment school on the Southwest Side. It makes sense. Why is everything always on the North Side?”
The mayor, who plans to use $60 million from the tax-increment-fund surrounding Stanton Park, 618 W. Scott, defended the location so close to Payton, and to the old Cabrini Green housing projects now quickly gentrifying.
“The way to think about it is, it’s all TIF,” he said. “So you have to kind of look at a combination. One is, because it serves the entire city, it has two different rail lines, four different bus lines, open land and it’s all being funded by TIF,” Emanuel said. “That makes the choices come down dramatically to literally less than a handful.”
In a TIF district, property taxes are frozen for 23 years. Increased taxes within those boundaries are put into a pool of money that’s used for specific purposes, such as infrastructure improvements.
The location is central, CPS spokesman Joel Hood said, and easily accessible by public transportation since selective-enrollment schools are designed to take in students from the entire city.
Though the president started his political career in Chicago as an organizer in Roseland and now owns a home in Kenwood, CPS already has several selective enrollment options including King College Prep and Lindblom Math and Science Academy on the South Side, Hood said.
The White House did not return a request for comment but Emanuel said he and Obama spoke of the project.
“The president considers this a shovel-ready project … I’m not gonna put words in his mouth,” said Emanuel, who served as Obama’s first chief of staff. “But, he knows about it and he’s excited about it. That’s all I can say.”
Obama may be the president but naming the school for him while he’s alive will require the Board of Education to change or make an exception to its policy requiring schools to take the names of those already deceased.
Sonya Chapman appeared with Emanuel at Skinner North Classical School, where her daughter, Erin, attends 4th grade but already aspires to MIT for college.
“So I am really excited about the announcement today, super excited. As a mother this is something I think about daily because I do want my child to have the best education, and I tell my daughter all the time the sky is not the limit because I see Erin’s footprints on the moon,” Chapman said. “That gives me hope, it takes some of the anxiety away because with these selective enrollment schools, I know there are so many children that are applying and they have limited seats.”
This year alone, applications for coveted spots in Chicago’s 10 selective-enrollment high schools rose by 8 percent. That left 16,440 applications submitted for 3,200 seats. A student can apply to more than one school.
“For so long we’ve had such a demand from our students and families who have access to selective enrollment schools, and as of today we’re going to be able to meet some of those needs,” schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett said. “We’ve not been able to meet the capacity and the demand and this year alone, we had more than 2,400 students who applied and who were qualified to attend a selective enrollment school but they were unable to attend because we simply did not have space.”
Roughly 70 percent of the seats will be filled through the highly competitive admissions process already in place for Chicago’s 10 other selective-enrollment high schools. The remaining seats will be filled through the kind of “neighborhood preference” already in place at Jones and Westinghouse.
Where the “neighborhood” boundary will be drawn remains to be seen but will involve community input, Hood said.
“The next question that needs to be answered is what is going to be the boundaries,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who fought for a community component at Jones College Prep in the South Loop.
“I’m concerned that we don’t have an equal footing here across the city and a selective enrollment school and [good] neighborhood schools in every area of our city,” Fioretti said. “We need to help all of kids no matter where they are and not just pander in certain areas.”
Louella Williams’s grandson at Manierre Elementary School, 1420 N. Hudson Ave., could benefit from the neighborhood preference. Manierre was spared in the 11th hour from the closing list. “Schools are being closed and now where is money coming in to build a brand new school?” the 79-year-old wondered.
“When you come down to the black community, there’s no money.”
“It’s supposed to excite me because they’re going to name the school after President Obama? Big deal.”