For the Record: With Obama Prep, North Side to get another selective high school

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Students in the Near North and Lincoln Park neighborhoods—the two wealthiest areas in the city—will soon have another high-quality selective school to choose from.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced Wednesday that CPS will build Barack Obama Preparatory High School with $60 million in tax increment financing money.

It will be located at Division and Halsted, on land near where the Cabrini Green housing projects once stood and that is now owned by the Chicago Park District.

Emanuel said that the new school will be a citywide option, “accessible from two rail lines and four bus lines. This new school is really for the whole city.”

Byrd-Bennett pointed out that this year, 2,400 students qualified to get into a selective enrollment school, but were not offered a seat and need to be given options to “live up to their potential.”

Yet children from the local area already have a better shot at getting into one of the city’s better high schools than most of their peers–an important point to note given that the new school will have a neighborhood preference component that sets aside 30 percent of seats for students from the area. (Click for an interactive map of where Level 1 schools are.)

Only one other selective enrollment high school has some seats set aside for neighborhood students: Jones College Prep, which is located on the south end of the Loop. In this case, the school also ends up catering to some of the wealthiest Chicagoans as it includes the Near South Side, the Near West Side and parts of Streeterville.

Less than a mile away from Barack Obama College Prep’s future location is Walter Payton College Prep, a selective enrollment school with the second-highest ACT scores in the city. In September, Emanuel announced that Payton will be getting a $17 million annex so it can serve an additional 300 to 400 students.

Payton is one of 11 selective enrollment high schools. About 20 percent of the students who apply get into one of them and the ones on the North Side—Payton, Northside, Whitney Young, Jones—only accept about 11 percent. The North Side selective schools are not only the highest performing in the city, but some of the best schools in the nation. (The Winter 2013 Catalyst In Depth looked at how hard it is to win a spot in these schools and the challenges of a special program designed to accept promising students from the worst elementary schools who otherwise would not have a chance to attend.)

A Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data from the 2011-2012 school year shows that, of those students who apply, more than one-third of those from well-to-do North Side neighborhoods, as well as from Hyde Park, Armour Square and Beverly, win a spot in one of these highly competitive schools.

Yet in less-wealthy areas–41 of 77 community areas in the city–not one student got an offer from a North Side selective school.

In addition, the neighborhood school that currently serves some of the area around the new Obama school is Lincoln Park High, the highest performing neighborhood high school in Chicago. Lincoln Park also has an International Baccalaureate program and a Fine Arts magnet program.

The other high school serving the area is Wells Community Academy High School. In 2012-2013, the federal government made a $6 million grant to Wells so that it could work with an outside partner to spur improvement. Wells rose to a Level 2 school last year, but fell back down to a Level 3—the lowest rating–this year.

Wells’ progress has been praised by Emanuel and its principal was promoted. But its progress has been stymied by its inability to attract students from its attendance area. With more selective options and charter schools nearby, the student enrollment is half what it was a decade ago and the school is at 43 percent capacity.

Sarah Blau contributed to this report.