CPS board members voted Wednesday to move forward with two controversial plans: infusing a military focus and adding high school grades at Ames and building an addition for Lincoln Elementary.

These decisions were expected as they had already been announced at press conferences by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appoints the school board. However, both these proposals were fiercely fought by some, who charged that they were the result of backroom deals and that officials were not listening to the community.

They also did not win unanimous support. Board members Carlos Azcoitia and Mahalia Hines voted against the conversion of Ames to a military school and Andrea Zopp voted against authorizing the Public Building Commission to undertake the design of the Lincoln Annex.  The Lincoln Elementary School addition is to be paid for with state money.

These proposals garnered outside attention because they spoke to larger CPS issues. Putting a military school into Ames drew opposition from those opposed to the “militarization” of schools. CPS has more military schools than any district in the country and they are seen by critics as recruiting tools.

Others criticized the Lincoln addition as unfair. Many other schools are more overcrowded than Lincoln Elementary School, which is in the wealthy Lincoln Park area and serves many well-connected families.

But Ald. Michelle Smith (34th Ward), whose area includes Lincoln Elementary, and Ald. Ricardo Maldonado (26th Ward), whose area includes Ames, told board members that the proposals enjoy “overwhelming” support in their communities.

“The need for this annex is indisputable,” Smith said. She said other proposals for dealing with overcrowding at Lincoln, such as redrawing attendance boundaries so that some students attend other neighborhood schools, would displace students and hinder children from getting the “high quality” education offered at Lincoln Elementary, she said.

Smith said she had hundreds of petitions supporting the addition.   

But Joy Wingren, who lives across the street from Lincoln Elementary, charged that when people signed petitions, they were not specifically supporting an addition to the elementary school.  On one of them, the question was asked “Do you want to keep Lincoln whole?”

“What does that mean?” Wingren asked.

Wingren and other residents are concerned that the addition will lead to increased traffic problems and the loss of green space.  

Maldonado’s proof of support also was questioned. He said he had a “scientific” survey done to gauge community support for the Ames conversion into a military school and it found that 72 percent of the 300 respondents want it.

However, one mother from Ames played board members a tape of the phone message of the survey sponsored by Maldonado. In it, Ames is called a gang-infested school.

Another Ames mother said the parents of the students and the elementary schools that feed into it are squarely opposed to the takeover of the school. Under the plan, incoming students will have to apply to the new Ames and their grades, test scores and an interview will be reviewed for admission.

Current Ames students will be allowed to stay at the school, as long as they are willing to buy into the new military focus. Ames will no longer have any feeder schools with McAuliffe Elementary School and Kelvyn Park High School adding 7th and 8th grades. Seventh and 8th graders from Barry, Nixon and Falconer will head to Kelvyn Park.

Under the plans approved Wednesday, Kelvyn Park, a poorly-rated school, will be the only high school with a junior high that students don’t have to apply to. Most high schools in the city with 7th and 8th grade programs are selective enrollment and allow students to take high school classes early.

Board members mentioned that the conflicting information about community support was confusing and challenging. Board member Henry Bienen asked CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett whether she or her staff made any effort to see verify the petitions.

Byrd-Bennett said she looked into hiring an expert, but decided it was too expensive.

Board President David Vitale noted that, in controversial issues with passionate supporters and detractors, it is often difficult to figure out what is true and what is not. “We do our best to sort it out,” he said.

Vitale said the board needs to establish a better prioritization process for figuring out what schools get additions. In fact, over the past year, CPS did pass a 10-year master facilities plan that could have provided some direction in determining which schools should get additions, but that plan was overshadowed by Emanuel and the state money.

Board member Jesse Ruiz said that Lincoln Elementary School parents should volunteer their time to help parents of other overcrowded schools organize and win some state money for themselves.

Other board actions and public testimony included:

  • CPS board members voted to move district headquarters to 1 S. Dearborn, which is a few blocks from their current location at 125 S. Clark. According to the Chicago Tribune, the 125 S. Clark St. location was purchased by CPS from ComEd in 1998 for $8.3 million. Staying in the current building would cost the district $90 million over 15 years, rather than the $34.5 million for the lease at 1 N. Dearborn. Byrd-Bennett said that, since 2009, the central office staff has been reduced by 34 percent, and, therefore, the current headquarters are underutilized.
  • A vote to make Morgan Park High School a “wall-to-wall” International Baccalaureate school. Under an initiative announced by Emanuel last year, five other high schools became IB schools.
  • Organizers from Logan Square Neighborhood Association complained that there have been major delays in getting parents approved to volunteer in their children’s schools. This year, CPS started abiding by a law that requires parents to be fingerprinted and it has taken more than two months for some of the fingerprints to be processed. Also, the fingerprinting requirement is discouraging undocumented immigrants from volunteering, organizers said.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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