In a tiff--or is it TIF? --over Obama Prep (part 1)

Guest blogger Shelley Barnard is a Hyde Parker and CPS mom. Shelley has a Master's degree in Mesopotamian history that she never uses, and a love for writing in which she seldom indulges.  She works part time for the Journal of Language Learning and Development, and full-time as the mother of two CPS students and one CPS graduate.  Worrying and stewing about public education is her newest hobby.  Here, she examines the puzzling proposed Obama Prep in two posts.

Right or wrong, not every neighborhood school in Chicago prepares our children for college. To combat this, the “selective enrollment” school was born.

Even the most gifted students find these schools to be rigorous, so only the most deserving and hard working gain admittance. Children who get into a selective enrollment high school have really earned the right to succeed in life, and will almost certainly do just that. It's all very Horatio Alger and apple-pie theory, anyway.

The reality is that many Chicagoans lack faith in their neighborhood high schools--often with good reason!--so engaged parents are desperate to get their children into a school that they are certain will be “good."

While “good” is clearly a subjective term, U.S. News and World Reports has ranked the top ten high schools in the state, and half of these schools are located within the city of Chicago. All five of these educational superstars are selective enrollment schools, which makes them a magnet for parents who are convinced that their kids can do the work if they can just get their child in the door. With the right amount of money spent on test prep, surely every snowflake can be special, and thus earn a spot in one of these schools.

Admission for selective enrollment schools derives from complex and constantly changing formulae. At the moment, 7th grade scores and grades and an admittance exam count in equal parts, though children in more impoverished parts of the city are supposed to be helped through the demographic tier system. (There have been complaints that this system is unfair, however.) Almost no children get in unless they score in the top 10% on these tests, and an acceptance at Lane Technical requires a performance in the top 1%.

CPS says that 16,440 students applied for just 3,200 spots last year, and recent trends suggest that the number of applicants will only increase in the years to come. Moreover, an average of 20% of successful applicants come from private elementary schools each year, so there are really more like 2,550 spots open to students who lack the financial wherewithal to attend a private school. Of those spots, half will probably go to students from elite gifted and magnet schools, which further lengthens the odds against talented young people who may have chosen to stay within their own neighborhood for elementary school.

Given these numbers, one could argue that there’s nothing our city needs more than another selective enrollment high school. Luckily, our kind and benevolent dictator mayor has proposed just such a school! Surely there is much rejoicing in the streets of Chicago!

Um…no. No, there isn’t. The mayor wants to give the city exactly what it needs the most, but in the absolute worst way possible.

The new school, to be named after our current President, will be located ten blocks away from an existing selective enrollment school on the Near North Side. One of Emanuel’s deputy chiefs of staff, Meghan Harte, justified this placement by saying that City Hall had “been looking for an opportunity to put a selective-enrollment [school] somewhere in the city that was centrally located.”

So, yeah, it’s close to another school because the Near North Side is “centrally located.” If you blatantly ignore the nine and a half miles of city that occur between 63rd and 138th Streets, it's perfectly central! Oh, and everything west of Kedzie Avenue, we totally don't need to count that, do we? I mean, what’s two-thirds of our city, give or take? You say "tomato," I say "the rest of the city is nothing but hypothetical construct anyway."

If one uses an actual map of Chicago, however, rather than the truncated one that is apparently hanging up in the mayor’s office, where can we find the ten existing and one proposed selective enrollment schools?



The proposed location for Obama Prep is circled, and as you can see, it is awfully close to a gaggle of other selected enrollment schools. You might also notice that there are large swathes of the blank spots on the southern and western areas of the city that have few or even no such schools.

But perhaps that is the area of greatest need. Perhaps there is an explosion of growth on the north side that necessitates a cluster of premiere high schools. Perhaps?

Not according to Chapin Hall, a University of Chicago think tank. In 2005, they projected that the biggest area for growth in the city would be on the West Side, particularly for the youngest demographic.

projected population change


While it is quite likely that the economic crisis  of 2008 altered these statistics somewhat, the Near North Side was projected to lose children, not gain them, and thus has less of a need for a new school than any other part of the city. Although published 2010 Census reports have not yet analyzed age demographics in a useful way, preliminary results would seem to support Chapin’s findings that the largest area of growth within the city is on the west side. Logically, it follows that the area most in need of new schools—-especially of new quality schools--would be in the Archer Heights neighborhood, or perhaps near Portage Park.

You remember. The very same areas that were devastated by school closings last year. (Because we're just that proactive in our city....)

So if City Hall wasn’t considering such practicalities as the physical presence of children to fill a high school, how did they choose this particular location for Obama College Prep?

Not through lobbying by Near North residents; many of them don’t even want it in their neighborhood. Obama Prep will pretty much eliminate Stanton Park, leaving nearby residents with a dearth of open green space in their neighborhood.

Nor did City Hall put much thought into how they might best honor the man who will gift his name to this new school. Barack Obama has lived in Hyde Park and owns a home in Kenwood. Before he went to Springfield, he worked as an organizer in much of the south side of the city. His wife, Michelle, grew up in South Shore. Wouldn’t it be more respectful to our President to place his eponymous school in a part of the city that has some meaningful connection to his life? Apparently not.

The city justified itself by claiming that Stanton Park is “centrally located” (demonstrably untrue) and close to public transportation. While the South Side is often slighted by CTA, much of it is just as accessible to public transportation as the Near North side is, and access to the West Side is adequate. So what, exactly, does the selected location have that more logical locations within the city do not have?


But that, friends, is a convoluted post for Monday.

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