Chicago Public Schools’ inspector general is calling on the school district to stop offering a free full-day Montessori preschool to students from the richest neighborhood in the school district.
Preschool in Chicago is typically only free for low-income students. But the tuition-free preschool at Oscar Mayer Elementary School in Lincoln Park almost exclusively serves students who live in a neighborhood of mostly upper-income homes.
CPS spends about $700,000 a year on the preschool, according to a report released Wednesday. A comparable private preschool could charge parents as much as $15,000 a year.
CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler said he was “incredulous” that there would be “this perk, for one neighborhood school, as opposed to all other schools.”
The average median family income in Mayer’s attendance area — nearly $178,000 a year — is the highest of any attendance area in CPS, an analysis by the IG’s office determined.
In the report, the inspector general traces the free preschool to an effort a decade ago to entice more neighborhood residents to send their children to the school. At the time, Mayer served mostly black and Latino students, though it was in an affluent, mostly white neighborhood.
CPS officials gave Mayer a unique status. It would be a magnet school with specialty Montessori and International Baccalaureate programs. It would also have a preschool. But unlike most magnet schools where students are admitted through a lottery, children from the neighborhood would get first shot at the Mayer seats.
Schuler said the enticement worked. “The word spread … like wildfire,” he said.
The preschool now almost exclusively enrolls students from the neighborhood, and the elementary school is now two-thirds white and only 15 percent of the students are considered low-income. Mayer enrolls among the fewest poor students of any school in the city.
In response to the inspector general’s report, CPS officials promised their own study of Mayer’s demographics and said they would consider admission changes for the 2019-2020 school year. CPS also will begin annual demographic assessments of Mayer.
School district officials said changes would only take place after “community engagement.”
When board members approved these changes to Mayer in 2008, they were concerned about the impact on student demographics.
Then-Board President Rufus Williams convinced district leaders to add a provision requiring district officials to submit a report each year on student demographics. None of those demographic assessments were ever filed with the Chicago Board of Education, according to the inspector general’s report.