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Obama High School Developed Under 'Communication Gap,' City Acknowledges

By Paul Biasco | April 29, 2014 8:52am | Updated on April 29, 2014 8:57am
 A rendering of the proposed Barack Obama College Preparatory High School presented at the Near North Unity Program meeting Monday night.
A rendering of the proposed Barack Obama College Preparatory High School presented at the Near North Unity Program meeting Monday night.
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City of Chicago

NEAR NORTH — An Emanuel administration official acknowledged Monday that residents of the area around the proposed Barack Obama high school were left out of the discussion in the planning, an exclusion that included to some degree the local alderman.

Appearing Monday night at a public meeting on the selective-enrollment school planned for the Near North Side neighborhood, Meghan Harte, an Emanuel deputy chief of staff, told a group of residents: "We’ve been looking for an opportunity to put a selective-enrollment [school] somewhere in the city that was centrally located, and within the last couple of weeks, there’s been a communication gap."

Harte, appearing at the Near North Unity Program meeting Monday, added, "I’m here to take full responsibility for that on behalf of the city and on behalf of the different agencies."

 Meghan Harte, the mayor's deputy chief of staff, explains the boundaries of Obama College Prep during a meeting Monday night.
Meghan Harte, the mayor's deputy chief of staff, explains the boundaries of Obama College Prep during a meeting Monday night.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

Some neighbors and park activists are angry that the proposed school would be built in the middle of Stanton Park and that Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office seemed to ignore years of planning and negotiation that had gone into redeveloping the area, which once included the Chicago Housing Authority's Cabrini-Green complex.

"How it was done, I'm serious, it disturbed me," Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said at the meeting. "But at the same time, I know what benefit this can be for the community."

Paul Biasco joins DNAinfo radio to chat about some concerns about the proposed school:

The alderman said he was aware a selective-enrollment school was coming to his ward, but didn't know the location until Emanuel's office announced it on April 24.

Emanuel “mentioned to me the high school he is looking at is going to be named after a very popular person, and it’s top secret, and you can’t say anything about it," Burnett said. "I never got the where."

Unlike some of the city's other selective-enrollment schools, Barack Obama College Preparatory High School would reserve some spots for neighborhood students.

Burnett said that component was related to the history of another exclusive and high-performing school, nearby Walter Payton College Prep.

And as the $60 million Obama College Prep will be, Payton College Prep was funded through Tax Increment Financing, a component that uses locally generated property tax dollars.

After the first year, a new administration at Payton stopped accepting students from the neighborhood who did not meet the selective-enrollment requirements, according to Burnett.

"The administration changed, and everybody had amnesia about that deal," Burnett said.

Burnett told his constituents he hasn't forgot about that decision regarding neighborhood admission, and it was on his mind when Emanuel came to him with a proposal to build a $17 million expansion to Payton with TIF funds from his community in the fall.

The alderman, who has represented the neighborhood for nearly 20 years, said he "expressed" himself to the mayor over spending more community money on Payton where neighborhood students couldn't necessarily go to school, and the two made an agreement.

"I've known [Emanuel] to always be a man of his word. He said, 'OK I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll give you another high school, and I'll give you a community component,'" Burnett said.

The proposal for Obama College Prep is for 70 percent of the students to be decided by selective enrollment. The other 30 percent of the 1,200 students would come from a neighborhood boundary around the school.

If there are more students in the neighborhood boundary than the 30 percent allows, the slots would be decided by a random lottery, Harte, Emanuel's deputy chief of staff, said.

That boundary has not yet been drawn, according to city officials.

Harte said the neighborhood boundary would be worked out with Burnett and community members.

The question of the curriculum at the school and how classes would be divided between high-scoring selective-enrollment students and neighborhood students also remained.

"This isn’t two separate schools with two separate entrances where selective kids go one place and the neighborhood kids go another place," Harte said. "That’s not the intent here, and we need to work through what the curriculum and what that’s going to look like.”

Harte said the mayor was looking for a centrally located area for the school that also had the funding available when he chose the site.

"There aren't that many locations, and this location was one of them, and it was an area that the mayor was interested in because of his interest in redeveloping the Near North community along with the former CHA area," Harte said.

 A map of Stanton Park with an outlay of the proposed Obama College Prep location.
A map of Stanton Park with an outlay of the proposed Obama College Prep location.
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City of Chicago

Burnett said that the neighborhood was chosen, in part, "because our TIF is probably one of the healthiest TIFs in the city of Chicago."

"The South Side doesn't have the money, the West Side doesn't have the money," Burnett said.

Burnett said he expected the school to help boost investment in the neighborhood from developers as the city seeks to revitalizes the former low-income housing site. His hope was that market-rate developers would be more willing to underwrite a Cabrini-Green redevelopment plan anchored by a state-of-the-art school.

Burnett and Harte faced a backlash from some Near North Side community members and parkland watchdogs who questioned the decision to place the park in the middle of Stanton Park.

The park is an integral part of CHA's redevelopment proposal for the former Cabrini-Green site and had been a topic of discussion for the last three years of planning.

Friends of the Parks, a not-for-profit Chicago parks advocacy organization, bashed the proposed school location earlier Monday, and warned that the use of Chicago Park District land could set a precedent for using park space to develop the Obama Presidential Library or George Lucas Cultural Arts Museum.

In a statement, the group voiced concern "that the City and Chicago Park District leadership’s mindset is that public open space is expendable and public process is optional."

None of the community members at Monday's meeting questioned the need for a quality school in the neighborhood, but they said they felt like an earlier plan for Stanton Park was for nothing.

"All of the hard work that came from the planning, the Cabrini-Green plans, our group was there," said Judy Jones, president of the Stanton Park Advisory Council. "We had neighborhood meetings. Residents came out, and we were charged with submitting these ideas and suggestions."

Obama College Prep would take up about 4 acres of the 5½ acre park.

The CHA's redevelopment proposal counted on the park to fulfill a need for open space in the Near North Redevelopment Initiative area.

According to a CHA report, the city would fulfill its need for additional open space for the 9,181 residents in the area and the increase from planned residential developments by annexing a field at the former Near North Career Metro High School.

Obama College Prep is slated to open in the fall of 2017.

It will be the city's 11th selective-enrollment high school and would take in an inaugural freshman class of nearly 300 students in 2017, according to CPS.

This school year, 16,440 students applied for 3,200 selective-enrollment seats, according to CPS.

Burnett called the school "a great opportunity" for the neighborhood and said he would consider encouraging the mayor to turn Skinner North or Jenner School into a selective-enrollment school with a community component.

"I look at this as a leveraging opportunity," Burnett said.