Chicago to add new Barack Obama College Prep High School

Advocates for Latino and black students fume over North Side location

April 25, 2014

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
A map showing the location of the proposed Barack Obama College Preparatory High School sits in the library of nearby Skinner North Elementary.

Chicago is getting another selective enrollment high school.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Thursday the city will build the Barack Obama College Preparatory High School on the Near North Side. It will enroll 1,200 students and is slated to be ready for the first 300 freshmen in the fall of 2017. The first students who will be eligible to enroll in the school are currently fifth graders.

Emanuel made clear in announcing the school he’s responding to heavy demand for the city’s top high schools—where many students need near perfect scores to be admitted. Emanuel said he recognizes the angst many parents face once their kids hit upper elementary school.

“’Where am I gonna send my child?’ It is the biggest anxious question that exists across the city of Chicago,” Emanuel said at a press conference at Skinner North Elementary, a classical school that will see part of the park behind it gobbled up for the new high school.

“Twenty-four hundred kids every year get turned away who are prepared for our high schools; and we are not prepared for them. Well, we’re gonna be prepared for them,” Emanuel said.

Obama College Prep will be built on park district land near the corner of North Halsted and West Division streets, where the towers of Cabrini Green once stood. School officials said 70 percent of students will be admitted based on grades and test scores.

This will be the city’s eleventh selective enrollment school and one of four elite public high schools clustered in a roughly one-and-a-half mile radius. Walter Payton College Prep, ranked one of the best schools in Illinois, is less than a mile away.

Location is "a slap"

The location of the new school drew immediate criticism.

Teacher Ray Salazar said he was “shocked” to hear the city was locating another selective school on the North Side. Salazar said it showed “city politics again are influencing decisions that benefit white, affluent families.” He said any new selective school should be located on the Southwest Side.

“We do not have a selective enrollment high school in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, and it is unfair that our high-achieving students have to travel over an hour to get to the nearest high-achieving school," said Salazar, who teaches writing at Hancock High, near 56th Street and Pulaski Road.

Salazar also said the system has become so competitive, disadvantaged students have trouble getting in at all. All selective schools have lower percentages of poor students than the district as a whole. At Payton, just 31 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 85 percent citywide.

West Side activist Dwayne Truss called an Obama High near Halsted and Division “a slap to both black families and children.” Truss said the money planned for the school should be used “to provide adequate funding for all of Chicago’s neighborhood schools rather than cater to wealthy middle-class families the school is targeting.”

Others wondered why Obama’s name was going on a North Side school when the president lived and worked on the South Side. “He knows about it and he’s excited about it,” said Emanuel. It would be the first CPS school to be named after a living person.

Emanuel said the location for the new school was chosen because the land was available, it’s on various transportation routes, and—perhaps most importantly—it’s in a TIF district with $60 million available.

Thirty percent of the seats at Obama High will be set aside for students nearby.

That’s a provision 27th Ward Ald. Walter Burnett said he pushed for “because we should not spend money in a neighborhood and people from the neighborhood cannot go to the school,” said Burnett. “That’s asinine. This is the TIF money that’s supposed to go back in the neighborhood that comes from the people in the neighborhood. I did the same thing with Westinghouse. When Westinghouse was built, they used my TIF money, (and) I told them they have to have a neighborhood component.”

Westinghouse College Prep has selective admissions and a less competitive “career” track, but admission to that program still requires minimum test scores and an extensive student essay. No students are automatically admitted to the school by virtue of their address.

Emanuel has come under fire for miraculously coming up with money for big-ticket capital projects at vaunted North Side schools with well-connected parents— current additions are underway at Lincoln, Coonley and Payton—while students on the Southwest and Northwest Sides hold class in trailers and stairwells due to overcrowding.

A new Near North Side high school was not called for in the Facilities Master Plan the district adopted less than a year ago; that plan actually predicts a drop in the population of 15-to-19-year-olds living in the area. And the district admits it has an oversupply of high school seats.

Asked how another North Side selective school fits into what many view as a two-tiered educational system, Emanuel said he rejects that view. But analyses show that racial segregation in the system is increasing, with the middle class disproportionately concentrated in CPS's magnet and gifted schools, and many charter and neighborhood schools enrolling disproportionate numbers of low-income and minority kids.

Emanuel said strong schools exist in minority communities and pointed to his efforts to strengthen neighborhood high schools with new International Baccalaureate and STEM programs.

Lakeview parent Patricia O’Keefe, who has three grammar-school-aged children in three different selective schools, praised the decision to expand the number of selective high school seats.

“It’s heartbreaking to see kids turned down who are completely qualified. So from my lens, it is a fantastic thing,” O’Keefe said.

And O’Keefe believes it may help parents buy into the system rather than fleeing to the suburbs or private schools.

“If you get more confidence in the city about high school, I think you reach a tipping point where everything will start to get better.... Something like this will not only help the selective enrollment, but it helps the whole momentum of high schools in general.”

Linda Lutton is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her on twitter @WBEZeducation.