Officials and students at Walter Payton College Prep High School cut the ribbon Monday on the elite high school’s new $20 million dollar annex that’ll eventually raise the school’s capacity by about 400 students.
When students report for the first day of class Tuesday, they’ll find a spacious cafe, third-floor gym, black box theater, mirrored dance studio and more than a dozen additional classrooms in a bright new space at 1034 N. Wells St.
Principal Tim Devine was delighted that the dance students and theater troupes who once had to cram into hallways now will have dedicated spaces to practice and perform.
The addition is among the first of several that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced since taking office at schools that serve more white and affluent children than CPS has on the whole. Nine out of 10 children in the city’s public school system district are minority or low-income; Payton, a test-in high school that sits just south of the demolished Cabrini Green housing projects, served a population that was 42 percent white and 32 percent low-income last year.
Several of the students who talked to Mayor Rahm Emanuel as he toured Payton said they lived close enough to the Old Town school to walk, though the mayor later said students attend from all corners of the city.
“We have to guarantee one thing to parents: quality,” said Emanuel, who’s determined to keep white middle-class families from fleeing to the suburbs as their children approach high school age.
“Payton gives kids from across the city an opportunity to think big, dream big, realize big.”
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said he championed the project after principal Tim Devine told him and the mayor that many children who qualified for Payton had to be turned away for lack of space. Burnett said his own son ended up at Whitney Young, another selective school just west of downtown. “Trying to get him into school was more stressful than trying to get him into college,” the alderman said. “I know how parents feel about their young folks being able to go to a good school and be able to get a good education.”
Meanwhile, the financially-strapped district is suffering a crisis in its neighborhood high schools, whose graduation rates are credited with raising the district’s newly-touted rates of 73.5 percent, but who are stuck in an ugly spiral of losing students and cutting programs as their budgets shrink.
Burnett also stressed that Payton’s improvements, which had been budgeted at $17 million but cost $20 million, CPS said, were funded through tax increment financing.
Currently CPS’s operating budget still depends on millions in help from Springfield — help that comes with conditions — and more in short-term borrowing to pay bills until property tax money arrives in March.