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Should CPS push neighborhood or selective schools? Candidates, students debate

Students line up at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on Thursday to ask mayoral candidates questions. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Students line up at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on Thursday to ask mayoral candidates questions. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Most Whitney Young High School students won’t be able to vote in next month’s mayoral election.

Plenty of them have thoughts on who should run the city.

“I can still tell my parents how I think they should vote,” said Damani Hood, 16. “I’ve got plenty of friends and relatives who are 18.”

Hood was among the student council members who organized a candidates forum at the Near West Side selective enrollment high school, with students posing their own questions to 11 City Hall hopefuls. Principal Joyce Kenner touted it as the first student-run mayoral debate in the country.

The candidates were hit with a string of questions on fighting corruption, dealing with lead contamination in water and implementing a consent decree for the Chicago Police Department.

But it was a question on the possibility of an elected school board that prompted Gery Chico to pounce on Toni Preckwinkle for her comments at a Wednesday debate calling for “strong neighborhood public schools — not magnet schools, not selective-enrollment schools, not charter schools — but strong neighborhood public schools.”

That drew “oohs” from some of the 200 or so students who took in the forum rather than lunch hour at Whitney Young, one of the city’s top selective enrollment schools.

Students diverged on the merits of bolstering magnet and selective enrollment schools over neighborhood schools.

“It leaves a lot of people behind,” 16-year-old Justin Sanders said after the two-hour forum.

Junior Ricardo Roman said he loves his school but could do without his hourlong commute from Midway.

“If there was a Whitney Young near me, I’d love to go there,” he said.

Damani Hood said he appreciates the citywide population that makes up the student body.

“I like to meet new people. You lack diversity when everyone’s coming from the same neighborhood,” the Washington Heights student said.

Preckwinkle later retorted that she wanted to strengthen all schools — selective and neighborhood.

“I’m not denigrating selective enrollment. I believe everyone should have the opportunity to go to a great school in their own neighborhood. Usually you can tell if the schools are good by their zip code,” Preckwinkle said.

Student Allison Chhay said she gleaned most from the candidates’ “lightning round” responses to yes-or-no questions.

All the candidates — which also included Amara Enyia, Bill Daley, Lori Lightfoot, La Shawn Ford, John Kozlar, Susana Mendoza, Paul Vallas, Garry McCarthy and Bob Fioretti — supported marijuana legalization and the need to maintain open enrollment across CPS.

Daley earned himself some eye rolls from teen pundits as the only candidate who said he was opposed to lowering the municipal voting age to 16.

“Sometimes you just want them to come out and say what they believe, and not necessarily all the rhetoric that comes with it,” Chhay said.

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