GOLD COAST — Chicago Public Schools decided Monday to pursue the merger of Ogden and Jenner elementary schools.
While a merger made sense logistically, with Ogden overcrowded and affluent, while Jenner is considered "underused" with a vast majority of low-income students, it wasn't clear if CPS was ready to commit to balancing them out with a merger.
CPS Chief Executive Officer Forrest Claypool moved forward on that Monday, saying, "The vibrant and growing communities that these schools serve approached CPS with a unique proposal to combine their efforts, not just to better use their existing space but also to integrate their student bodies. We are looking forward to taking the next step toward making this merger happen, and will provide the community with a draft transition plan this fall."
"Our mission is to provide all children from all backgrounds the best possible education, and I believe that integrating these school communities will strengthen their future and our city’s future,” added Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson. “Giving all our students access to critical programs like International Baccalaureate will expose them to even more academic rigor, and I know all our students can rise to the challenge."
Principals for the two schools backed the merger proposal late in 2015. Ogden's elementary school at what's considered the East Campus at 24 W. Walton St. is overcrowded, while Jenner's building at 1119 N. Cleveland St., built 15 years ago for a capacity of just over 1,000, now has an enrollment of 244 with the subsequent razing of the Cabrini-Green high-rise projects.
Calling it "an unprecedented merger," Jackson emphasized that the idea had come from the "two distinct communities that are attempting to integrate" and had widespread support at community meetings on the topic.
"Based on the community meetings, there's been overwhelming support in favor of the merger," Jackson insisted. "I'll acknowledge concerns on both sides. Any time you merge two school communities together, you have to worry about just how people will assimilate."
Ogden is a top-to-bottom International Baccalaureate school with about 850 students and is considered a top-flight school academically, while Jenner, in improving since it was considered for closure in 2013, is still shy of fully complying with district standards and is said to require "intensive support."
Jenner thrived under Principal Robert Croston, but has been under interim principals this school year as Croston fights a health battle with Marfan Syndrome.
Ogden also has a middle school and high school serving grades 6-12 at what's considered its West Town Campus, 1250 W. Erie St.
CPS has attempted to answer frequently asked questions from parents at both schools, but those questions figure to persist and expand with Monday's announcement.
"The insight, ideas and questions that you brought forward at these meetings have been thought-provoking and productive as we evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of a merger,” CPS wrote parents in a letter signed by Claypool and Jackson. “We continue to hear voices of the community that support this merger to strengthen and integrate both school communities, and we continue to hear from voices who oppose the merger because of the complex logistical questions it creates and concern that the merger makes it more challenging to focus on academics."
The district has until the end of August to draft a "transition plan" for the merger. It would have to be presented to the Board of Education by Dec. 1, with additional public meetings and hearings set before a final board vote on the issue, most likely in February. If approved, the schools would then plan to merge for the 2018-19 academic year.
The transition plan, however, figures to be thorny enough on its own, as the district said it will have to address "academic programming, managing the three-building footprint, school climate and culture and staffing levels."
"I don't have any fantasies about this being an easy thing to do," Jackson said. But she added, "We're going to be listening to the community on this" to arrive at "the least amount of disruption for both communities."
While staffing will be one of the issues that will have to be ironed out in the logistics of melding two curriculums in three locations, the Chicago Teachers Union cheered Monday's announcement.
"We’re supportive of the merger, as integration should always be a goal for a district serving such a diverse student population as CPS," said union spokesman Ronnie Reese. "We hope it becomes a model for other schools across the city, especially those in similar situations, such as the case with South Loop Elementary and National Teachers Academy."
Jackson cited national data showing that integration — whether racial, economic or academic — is "best for all students," adding, "That's a good thing from an academic standpoint and also from a social and emotional standpoint."
Jackson granted that it was sure to be "a complex process initially, but after a year it's going to be a terrific school, and 10 years from now people are going to be patting themselves all on the back and taking credit for the great plan."
"We believe in our children, and we believe they're going to rise to the occasion," Jackson said. "It's the right thing for Chicago and the right thing for these two school communities."