Chicago Public Schools is moving forward with plans to merge two schools on opposite ends of the income divide.
Top school district officials said Monday they recommend merging Jenner Academy of the Arts in the Cabrini-Green area and Ogden International School of Chicago in the Gold Coast starting in September 2018.
The details of the controversial merger plan will be developed in the coming months and still need to be approved by the Chicago Board of Education.
The idea of combining the two schools, which sit seven blocks away but worlds apart, first popped up during the summer of 2015 and quickly turned into a heated debate about school quality, segregation and economic development on Chicago’s changing Near North Side.
Ogden International is a diverse, affluent public school in the Gold Coast that has struggled with overcrowding, while nearby Jenner Academy in Cabrini-Green has struggled with underenrollment since the city tore down nearby public housing. Nearly all of Jenner’s students are African-American and low-income.
Community members and parents came up with an idea of combining the two schools to solve both problems. Both principals and each school’s local school council voted in favor of the idea, but school district officials had remained silent on the matter — until now.
Parents at the schools on Monday received a letter announcing plans to move forward with integrating the two schools from CPS Chief Executive Officer Forrest Claypool and Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson.
“While some questions remain about the logistics of this action, as the leaders of Chicago Public Schools, we intend to recommend that the Chicago Board of Education move forward to make and implement a plan for merger of the schools, the precise components of which will be determined after additional community input,” the letter said.
Rabbi Seth Limmer from Chicago Sinai Congregation near Ogden is part of a group that’s been pushing for the merger. Though first floated as a solution to overcrowding at Ogden, many now see it as a way to reunite an area that’s historically been divided along race and class lines.
“I don’t think that this is the end of an old system in Chicago and a complete beginning of a new day,” Limmer said, “But it’s an important step in thinking about what integrated education looks like.”
This decision has taken unusually long by CPS standards. In 2013, the school system shuttered 50 schools in less than a year. But this is no ordinary merger. In most Chicago schools, kids are clustered according to race and income. This effort is trying to break with that pattern.
There are still many people at both Jenner and Ogden who are leery of combining the schools. For one, Ogden is high performing and Jenner has historically had low test scores.
Even the school district’s letter to parents admits key details still need to be hashed out before a formal recommendation is made to the school board in December. Things like: Which grades will be housed at which buildings? What programs might be expanded or cut? Will teachers keep their jobs?
“It’s been this pie in the sky conversation for two years,” said Ogden parent Marielena O’Connell Kenny. But “when those details come out…then [there will be] more controversy, more argument …The vibe at Ogden, there are a lot of people that are tired of this and they’re looking to move.”
O’Connell Kenney wants the district to survey all the parents confidentially before a final vote next February.
“You have to hear from Ogden and Jenner in a confidential way because there is this racism thing that’s looming, that if you speak against it that you’re viewed as a racist, which just isn’t true,” she said.
CPS’ Janice Jackson said district officials will continue listening to the communities as they develop a detailed merger plan this summer and fall. By law, three more public hearings are required ahead of the school board vote.
“I have no doubt that there will be some complexities,” she said. “I think 10 years from now, everybody’s going to be taking credit for this. I think our students will rise to the occasion, that they will create a beautiful school community and again, everybody’s going to look back and really know that CPS made the right decision supporting this merger.”
If school board members approve merging the two schools, it would happen by September 2018.
Becky Vevea covers education for WBEZ. Follow her at @WBEZEducation.