• Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media
  • “Literally less than a handful” of neighborhoods were right for Obama College Prep, Mayor Emanuel told reporters when he announced plans for it on April 24.

For a school that won’t begin rejecting students until 2017, Obama College Prep has already ticked off a lot of people. Why? Location, location, location.

At an April 24 press conference, Mayor Emanuel announced that the city would build a selective enrollment high school on the Near North Side and name it for President Obama. He said he picked the Near North neighborhood because it was accessible by bus and train and had open land, and because $60 million in tax increment financing was available to build it in the area. There were “literally less than a handful” of neighborhoods in which the school could be built, he said.

The mayor said Obama Prep would go up in Stanton Park, which is a block north of Division and a block east of Halsted. This irked area residents, who didn’t want to lose the park. Indeed, a Chicago Housing Authority draft redevelopment plan for the neighborhood, published in February, says the area needs more park space. Obama Prep would consume most of Stanton Park’s five acres.

The mayor’s announcement also bothered Alderman Walter Burnett Jr., whose ward, the 27th, includes Stanton Park. Burnett later said he welcomed the idea of building the school in his ward, but he maintained that Emanuel didn’t tell him the exact site until the day of the press conference.

In order to save Stanton Park, the city is now considering other sites in the neighborhood, Burnett told me ten days ago. Presumably he’ll learn which one was chosen before ground is broken.

Other critics of the planned location have a broader objection: they say the school shouldn’t be on the Near North Side at all. Obama College Prep would give the neighborhood two selective enrollment high schools; the other, Payton College Prep, at 1034 N. Wells, is less than a mile from Stanton Park. Just last September, Emanuel announced that the city would spend $17 million to build an annex to Payton that would increase the school’s capacity from 900 students to at least 1,200. Obama Prep also will eventually enroll 1,200. Critics of the Near North location for Obama Prep note that it’s one of Chicago’s richest areas and is predominantly white, and that many low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods have no selective enrollment high schools.

Rendering of the annex that will boost Payton College Prep's capacity from 900 students to at least 1,200
  • Sun-Times Media
  • Rendering of the annex that will boost Payton College Prep’s capacity from 900 students to at least 1,200

It’s a valid point, but the issue is complex. There are sound reasons for putting the school on the Near North Side, and sound reasons for putting it elsewhere.

Of the city’s present ten selective enrollment high schools, four (Lindblom, Brooks, King, and South Shore) are on the south side, two (Northside and Lane Tech) are on the north side, and one (Westinghouse) is on the west side. The other three are centrally located (Jones just south of the Loop, Whitney Young west of downtown, Payton to the north).

The combined capacity of the four south-side schools is 3,220; for the two north-side schools it’s 5,126.

Hispanics are the largest racial or ethnic group in CPS—the citywide enrollment is 45 percent Hispanic, 40 percent black, and just 9 percent white. But there’s no selective enrollment high school on the largely Hispanic southwest side.

Selective enrollment schools aren’t ordinarily neighborhood schools; they’re open to applicants citywide. Students with the highest test scores and grades are admitted in accordance with a tier system intended to yield a socioeconomically diverse enrollment.

At Obama Prep, however, 30 percent of the seats will be reserved for students from the area. So it will and it won’t be a neighborhood school.

Alderman Burnett told me he sought this 30 percent stipulation to ensure that residents of his ward benefited from the school. All Near North residents aren’t rich, he stressed. The area was home to the Cabrini-Green housing project, and although the high-rises have been demolished and most of the tenants are gone, families still live in Cabrini row houses, and former Cabrini tenants are in several mixed-income developments that went up as the high-rises were coming down. (The Near North Side’s poverty rate is 13.5 percent, according to recent estimates, 18th lowest among the city’s 77 community areas.)

The area is gentrifying, but the present and former Cabrini tenants may not be squeezed out of their neighborhood the way low-income residents often are. A consent decree entered into by the city and the Chicago Housing Authority in 2000 promises them housing in the area.

Burnett thinks Obama Prep can help make the Near North Side more socioeconomically diverse, especially with the 30 percent stipulation. The school will be an amenity to help draw market-rate buyers to the mixed-income developments. Drawing them hasn’t been easy, and the mixed-income developments can’t succeed without them.

At a community meeting in late April reported on by DNAinfo, Meghan Harte, Emanuel’s deputy chief of staff, said the mayor favored the area “because of his interest in redeveloping the Near North community along with the former CHA area.”

For students from outside the area, a Near North Side location would clearly be more convenient for teens from the predominantly white neighborhoods along the north lakefront than for those from the African-American neighborhoods on the south side and the Hispanic neighborhoods on the southwest side.

But Alderman Burnett, who’s African-American, told me that many black families who live in poor, violent neighborhoods prefer that their children attend a school in a safe, affluent area, even if it’s a long commute.

Research strongly suggests that socioeconomically diverse schools are far better learning environments than schools whose enrollments are overwhelmingly poor. But with a citywide enrollment that’s 85 percent low-income, CPS has few socioeconomically diverse schools. The selective enrollments are intended to create at least a handful of such schools. They’re also designed to persuade Chicago families that aren’t low-income to consider a city high school for their teens, rather than opt for a private school or move to the suburbs.

The centrally located selectives—Payton, Jones, and Young—are indeed socioeconomically diverse. They’re a combined 40 percent low-income, according to our calculations of CPS data. They’re also quite diverse racially—an aggregate 31 percent white, 27 percent Hispanic, and 22 percent black. And their students are excelling academically: U.S. News & World Report rates the three schools second, third, and fourth respectively among public high schools in Illinois.

Some of those who favor the Near North Side for Obama Prep contend the school won’t be diverse if it’s built in a minority neighborhood, because affluent parents just won’t send their kids to a school in such a neighborhood.

There is evidence for that claim. The five selective enrollment schools on the south and west sides are a combined 78 percent low-income—not much less than the citywide 85 percent proportion. And they’re not very diverse racially: a combined 77 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic, and only 1.5 percent white.

It’s not impossible to attract white students to high schools in minority neighborhoods, however, as some Catholic schools show. Saint Rita, at 79th and Western, is in a solidly black section of the Ashburn community. In 2012 (the latest year for which we could obtain racial and ethnic figures), the high school’s enrollment was 70 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, and 14 percent black. Mount Carmel, at 64th and Dante in mostly African-American Woodlawn, was 53 percent white, 32 percent black, and 11 percent Hispanic. Those schools are male-only, and they draw on largely white alumni pipelines—which a new public school obviously couldn’t. The two Catholic schools are evidence, though, that white families will send their children to high schools in minority neighborhoods under the right circumstances.

And shouldn’t CPS try to create the right circumstances, so that minorities who attend selective enrollments aren’t always the ones inconvenienced?

A selective enrollment high school in far-south-side Riverdale, or in Englewood, with its high crime rate, isn’t likely to attract middle-class or white students. But there are neighborhoods on the south and west sides that could attract them, especially given the demand for the selective enrollment high schools.

Open land between State and Federal, Pershing Road and 40th Street, where Robert Taylor Homes high-rises once stood
  • Steve Bogira
  • Open land between State and Federal, Pershing Road, and 40th Street, where Robert Taylor Homes high-rises once stood

For decades, State Street from 35th to 54th was a forbidding corridor. But the Stateway Gardens and Robert Taylor Homes housing projects that dominated that stretch are now gone, and the neighborhood has shown signs of revival: the poverty rate has declined significantly since 2000, and many new townhomes have been built. There’s still plenty of space for a new school. The 3800 block of South State is occupied by a boarded school, the former home of Crispus Attucks elementary—land presumably still owned by CPS. The Green Line runs just a block east. Another Catholic school, De La Salle Institute, nearby at 34th and Michigan, has an enrollment that’s very diverse racially: 36 percent Hispanic, 34 percent African-American, and 27 percent white. (De La Salle is now co-ed, and the girls, 40 percent of the enrollment, attend school on a campus a mile-and-a-half west, in Bridgeport.)

There’s also much open land on the Near West Side, just south of Roosevelt and east of Ashland, where the ABLA housing project once stood. It’s a racially mixed area that’s near two predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, Pilsen and Little Village. Neighboring Saint Ignatius College Prep, on the 1000 block of West Roosevelt, has a co-ed enrollment that’s 68 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent black.

South of Roosevelt Road and east of Ashland, the former site of the ABLA housing project remains empty.
  • Steve Bogira
  • South of Roosevelt Road and east of Ashland, the former site of the ABLA housing project remains empty.

Obtaining land from the sites of former housing projects can be difficult; much of it was pledged to mixed-income developments that stalled when the real estate market crashed in 2007. But that’s at least as much of a challenge on the Near North Side. Alderman Burnett told me that many of the sites the city is now considering for Obama Prep are within the former Cabrini-Green, and so are encumbered by the consent decree.

Was the State Street corridor, the Near West Side, or any other area considered for Obama Prep? What neighborhoods were among the “literally less than a handful” where the school could have been built? I asked a CPS spokesman about the site selection process three weeks ago. He referred me to the mayor’s office. After numerous e-mails and calls to the mayor’s office, I finally got a response Thursday: a spokeswoman for the mayor referred me back to the CPS spokesman. It’s as if I were the alderman.

At the meeting in late April where Meghan Harte, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, addressed Near North residents, she apologized to them for the “communication gap” that preceded the choice of Stanton Park. But on the larger question of the choice of neighborhood for Obama Prep, there’s been a communication vacuum.

Should the city be building another selective enrollment high school in the first place? That’s another complex issue raised by Obama Prep—one I’ll address later this week.

Will Greenberg and Osita Nwanevu helped research this post.