Obama Prep won’t serve the whole city without a lot of work

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Linda Lenz

Linda Lenz

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that Chicago Public Schools would build another selective enrollment school on the Near North Side, he argued it would serve the whole city, not just the gentrifying communities around it. The reason: It would be “accessible from two rail lines and four bus lines.” 

But enrollment demographics at the city’s other test-in high schools on the North Side suggest it will take more than good transportation to get a geographic, racial and socio-economic mix at the Barack Obama Preparatory High School. 

Sarah Karp, the deputy editor at Catalyst Chicago, crunched these numbers for our winter issue: In 2012, only 17 percent of students at the elite north side schools were African-American, down 11 percentage points from 2000. (Latino enrollment held steady at 30 percent.)

If the mayor truly wanted the President’s high school to serve the city, he could have chosen the Near South Side or Bronzeville, where an elite school also would have promoted much needed economic development.  

Further, at those locations the school would not as readily undermine an already struggling neighborhood school, as the chosen site does with nearby Wells High School. Wells is one of 18 low-performing schools in Chicago to receive a multi-million school improvement grant from the President’s education department, which has had some positive effect but still leaves the school far behind.

In the case of Bronzeville, a selective enrollment school also would have made up for its impending loss of the Chicago High School for the Arts to, yes, the North Side.

CPS has not been oblivious to the skewed demographics at its selective enrollment schools. When the district was under a federal desegregation consent decree, it maintained some diversity at its most elite high schools by capping the percentage of seats awarded to white students. Once the degree was lifted, then-CEO Ron Huberman feared the schools would become less diverse. So, seizing a student transfer provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, he reserved 100 seats at each school for promising students from the district’s lowest-achieving, all-black elementary schools. 

CPS has quietly continued Huberman’s initiative, while cutting back on support funds. Without the program, the data show, the percentage of black students at the north side elite schools would have dipped two points, to 15 percent.

The first cohort of students in Huberman’s program are now juniors. As Ms. Karp reported, while some foundered academically, many adjusted to the demands of a top high school. 

Take Anthony Wiggins, for example. He said he felt better off at Whitney Young than he would have at his neighborhood school on the Far Southeast Side. But nearly every semester has been difficult for him, and he longed to be better prepared. A geometry class during summer orientation left him “totally freaked out,” he said. “I had never seen this before in my life.” 

If the mayor wants Obama Prep to draw from and reflect all of the city, he’s going to have to work at it and not simply hope it will happen. Mr. Huberman’s set-asides should be only a start.  Students in poorly performing elementary schools who have high potential need support and guidance, too.

Linda Lenz is the publisher and founder of Catalyst Chicago. This opinion piece appeared first in Crain’s Chicago Business.