Top Chicago Public Schools officials are backing the merger of two North Side elementary schools at either end of the economic spectrum, they informed community members in a letter Monday.
Two years after their principals raised the possibility, the heavily white Ogden International School of Chicago, 24 W. Walton, and the predominantly black Edward Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts, 1119 N. Cleveland, are now set to be consolidated as of the 2018-2019 school year, pending approval by the Chicago Board of Education.
Ogden, where only one in four students is considered poor, is nearing capacity and expected to keep growing, needing more space. Jenner, where nearly every one of its 244 students comes from a home that’s below the poverty level, has watched its enrollment drop. CPS projects that the combined school would have a poverty rate of about 35 percent. White students would still constitute a plurality, at about 34 percent, followed by black students at 32 percent.
“CPS has never done anything like this,” said Janice Jackson, CPS’ chief education officer. “I really believe that it’s the right decision for the district. While it may be complex in the beginning, 10 years from now, people are all going to be taking credit for this . . .
“We have to merge two communities together and we don’t take that lightly, but I do know our students are going to rise to the occasion and that everyone in the community will end up better off as a result of being in a diverse environment that’s high performing and that has the support that it needs for the children to be successful.”
The Board of Education would vote on the proposed merger by February. State law requires district leaders to announce any plans to close or consolidate schools by Dec. 1.
Announcing the decision now affords time to build a “concrete transition plan that really answers the questions that community members still have,” she said, about how the school’s grades might be divided up or its three campuses managed. “There’s a lot that still has to get worked out.”
It’s also not yet clear what the school would be called or which school’s model would become the curriculum, though supporters favor the benefits of Ogden’s international baccalaureate program.
The steering committee made up of neighbors, clergy and community members from both schools has called the proposal “a win-win for both schools.”
Jenner has been in danger of closing because of under enrollment. District leaders came close to shuttering it during the 2013 mass closings.
Randall Blakey, a North Side pastor and co-chair of the Jenner/Ogden Steering Committee, called the decision “an about face to the separate but unequal education that has been a part of the city of Chicago’s paradigm.”
He said a long education campaign funded by a grant has brought families initially wary of merging diverse cultures together to support the proposal.
“A number of people have concerns, some of which even disagree with the reason why or the overall plan itself but that was to be expected. Anytime you have something that is racially charged, it is going to bring out those sentiments across the board,” Blakey said. “Now we get down to the nitty-gritty and begin to hash out what it’ll look like.”
CTU spokesman Ronnie Reese said the teachers union also supports such a merger.
“Integration should be a goal for every school district, especially one serving such a diverse student population as CPS. We hope this becomes a model for schools throughout the city,” he said.
“Raises the question, though, why doesn’t CPS do the same thing with NTA and South Loop, instead of spending tens of millions on a new building amidst a ‘budget crisis’?” Reese continued, referring to a similar dynamic between the underenrolled National Teachers Academy and the overcrowded South Loop elementary school, which will soon break ground on a $60 million annex for South Loop, where students are significantly whiter and wealthier than those at NTA.