CPS CEO Jackson concerned about declining black enrollment and rising racial tension at Walter Payton College Prep

WBEZ-FM Radio recently lifted the veil on the apparent ugliness going on behind the pristine walls of the Near North Side high school that holds the highest ranking in Illinois.

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Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson talks to Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman on Friday.

Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said she is concerned about declining black enrollment and rising racial tension at the city’s showcase selective enrollment high school and wants the principal of Walter Payton College Prep to devise a plan to remedy it.

WBEZ-FM Radio recently lifted the veil on the apparent ugliness going on behind the pristine walls of the Near North Side high school that holds the highest ranking in Illinois.

The story highlighted the fact that only 11 percent of Payton’s exemplary student body is black, down from 25 percent a decade ago, when Payton used racial quotas in the admissions process instead of student zip codes to determine “socio-economic status.”

The radio station also highlighted what it called a “series of disturbing racial incidents” that ranged from black students “being called the N-word to bananas being thrown at them in the cafeteria.”

On Friday, Jackson said she started “engaging with” longtime Payton Principal Tim Devine about the racial tension months ago, long before the WBEZ story broke.

The system’s chief equity officer, Maurice Sweeney, has also been “working directly” with Erica Bauer, director of student engagement at Payton, Jackson said.

“The first thing that we want to do is work with the principal to see what plan they have in place to address some of the issues around culture and climate,” Jackson told the Sun-Times.

“We can’t ignore the voices and the stories of the students that have spoken up. Knowing Principal Devine, I know that he wants to be responsive to that. We need to make sure that he, as well as the entire staff, is responsive to that.”

Devine could not be reached for comment.

To avoid “casting a whole image” of Payton that “we can’t support with data and facts,” Jackson said she has ordered a “culture and climate” assessment that will determine how “isolated” or “pervasive” the problem is and what kinds of student and teacher training may be needed to make things better.

“Any time kids don’t feel that they’re being supported or safe in a school is something that gives me cause for concern. For my part, it’s making sure that principals are being responsive to that and coming up with plans to make students feel welcome,” Jackson said.

“It may mean re-training them around a student code of conduct to make sure that they understand that there are ways in which people can be held accountable for some of the behavior infractions. It may be training them on the district’s equity framework that we are close to publishing.”

As for the declining black population at Payton, Jackson blamed the end of racial quotas and the opening of selective enrollment high schools like Lindblom and Westinghouse, where she once served as principal, that reduce travel times for students living on the South and West sides.

“I traveled an hour-and-a-half to high school every day … to get a better education. If you can go to a great school in your community, that’s where we want you to go,” she said.

“But we also have to make sure that we’re preparing our students at the elementary level to compete at some of these [top five] schools where it is very competitive. … That’s the bigger conversation.”

During a wide-ranging interview with the Sun-Times dominated by the threat of a teachers strike, Jackson also acknowledged that CPS has 150,000 more seats than students and that pressure is building for another round of school closings now that a five-year moratorium has expired.

Conversations have begun with South and West side communities most impacted by a black exodus from the city. But Jackson maintained that any consolidation plan that emerges from those talks will not include a repeat of the 50 school closings in one fell swoop ordered by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

It’ll be more along the lines of the plan that closed a handful of high schools in Englewood and replaced it with one new high school.

“You have buildings that were built to suit 800 students with less than 200 or 100 students in there” that need to be closed, she said.

“But what you won’t see with this administration — and this is something I don’t believe in [either] — is widespread school closings like we had years ago. We have to work directly with communities. And we have to re-invest.”

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