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Chicago Aldermen Hear Plans To Merge Gold Coast, Cabrini Green Schools

Parents from two very different public schools gathered Wednesday night to share their opinions with district officials about a possible merger.

It was the first of three Chicago Public Schools’ community hearings to get feedback on combining Ogden International School of Chicago with Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts.

The two schools are seven blocks apart, but are on opposite ends of the income divide. Ogden is one of the best public schools in the city. Jenner serves mostly low-income students.

The community came up with the plan a year and a half ago, but the merger was thwarted by city leaders.

Parents, teachers, and community members fill the gym at the east campus of Ogden International School. (Becky Vevea/WBEZ)

Unlike the last series of meetings, district officials and local aldermen are now involved in the merger discussions.

“This proposal has been out in the community for a little while,” said Patrick Payne, a portfolio planner for CPS. “We’ve thought about it. We’ve looked at it, but we think that it raises some issues and some challenges as to how we would go about moving forward with this.”

If approved, the merger would begin during the 2018-19 school year.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward) represents much of the Ogden attendance boundary and has not expressed an opinion on whether or not to merge.

“I sensed some increasing support for it,” Hopkins said. “But again, we don’t have the level of detail that we really need to make a decision, so when that is presented to us, the deck could shuffle once again.”

Parents from both schools spoke about the benefits of a merger.

“Jenner needs this merger just as well as Ogden needs this merger, and together the parents need this merger,” said Raymond Richard, an activist from Jenner. “This is going to give them an opportunity to learn and grow, and seven blocks away from each other? Are ya’ll kidding me?”

Katie Welsh, the former assistant principal at Jenner, said the school has made remarkable progress, but the chronic low-enrollment continues to be a challenge and a merger could help that. She said when Jenner Principal Robert Croston looked at the school’s budget last year, they had no choice but to cut her position.

“There was no way we could afford a full-time assistant principal without cutting music and creating split level classes,” Welsh said. “The thought of Jenner having to make additional cuts to an already limited budget is heart-wrenching.”

Rebecca Wells sends her son to Ogden and initially supported the merger because the school was increasingly overcrowded and Jenner had space. Even though overcrowding is no longer an immediate problem for Ogden, Wells said the parents should consider what a merger could mean for the city.

There are lots and lots of schools in CPS that are similar to our situation, white, high performing schools right next to lower performing brown and black schools,” Wells said. “That’s not fair. There are so many opportunities that we could do mergers like this. We just want to be a blueprint. We want CPS to do this right and I think they will do it right if we give the blessing.”

Several Ogden parents brought up logistical concerns with merging the two schools. For example, Ogden is already spread across two buildings, so a merger would add a third. There was also the question of whether or not teachers could lose their jobs.

Brian Grauer, the Chicago Teachers Union delegate for Ogden’s East campus, said the contract is “very clear about the pecking order."

“I also think it’s very important, if they do consolidate, that students coming over need the comfort of their teachers, so that’s something to be considered,” Grauer told district officials.

Ogden parent Mark Blankstein said he hasn’t formed an opinion on the merger because he needs the questions raised by fellow parents answered.

“We think it’s totally impossible to formulate a viewpoint before we know the most critical parts of a school combination proposal,” Blankstein said.

A report released by a consultant hired to study the feasibility of combining the two schools recommended CPS spend additional money to bring the communities together.

“CPS is cutting budgets left and right,” said Ogden parent Leslie Feinberg.” We have had our budget cut twice this year. The State of Illinois can’t pass a budget. Gov. (Bruce) Rauner has no interest in the children of the city of Chicago and he has made that perfectly clear.”

Both Hopkins and Ald. Walter Burnett (27th Ward) were at Wednesday’s meeting. Alderman Brendan Reilly (1st Ward) sent a representative from his office.

Burnett has supported the merger since the idea first became public last year. Near the end of the meeting, he addressed the budget disparities.

“I don’t want my Jenner kids to feel like they’re not deserving of anything,” he told the crowd. “It’s a shame that they have to hear that Ogden has better things than them. It’s not right. No matter what happens here, I’m going to make sure that Jenner gets more.”

After the meeting, Hopkins told WBEZ funding would be a top priority for him as well.

“If this merger does get adopted, I know Alderman Burnett, Alderman Reilly, myself, our next phone call will be to Mayor Emanuel and we will say to him, ‘We need the resources to make this work.’ ” Hopkins said. “This cannot fail. We cannot go down this experimental road and have it blow up on us. That would be a disaster.”

CPS will hold two more community meetings before making a decision.

The next one will be from noon-2 p.m. March 18 at Jenner Academy of the Arts at 1119 N. Cleveland Ave. The final one will be at 5 p.m. April 25 at Ogden's west campus at 1250 W. Erie St.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.

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