Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (D) announced a controversial plan in April to build the first new public high school on the city’s west side in 29 years–and splitting its 1,200 students evenly between a selective-enrollment college prep school and a vocational-education magnet school.
Daley claims the school will meet a demand and could be a positive model for other Chicago high schools to follow.
The new school–which will replace Westinghouse Career Academy on West Franklin Boulevard and is being built across the street from the old school–will cost $47 million. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2006, with doors opening to students in 2008.
Demand Is High
In 2004-05, only 233 of the 1,700 students applying to Chicago’s eight college prep schools from the communities surrounding Westinghouse–which has been strictly a vocational-ed school since 1997–secured places in a college prep school.
“There was a real demand for a selective-enrollment school on the west side of Chicago,” said Chicago Public Schools spokesman Tim Tutton.
According to an April 19 news release from the Public Building Commission of Chicago, the new college prep school will use the same admission standards as the other eight, which give competitive entrance exams to students who do well on their 7th grade standardized tests in math and reading. The voc-ed school will interview students to determine the best fit for them; 30 percent of the 600 voc-ed slots will be guaranteed to students residing in the communities surrounding Westinghouse.
There also will be some crossover studies: Daley told the Chicago Sun-Times on April 19 some of the new school’s voc-ed students could take college prep classes, and some of the college prep students could take voc-ed classes.
Finance Monopoly Remains
John Norquist, president of the Congress for New Urbanism and former mayor of Milwaukee, isn’t convinced the new Westinghouse is the best way to improve Chicago’s high schools.
“Chicago public schools are trying lots of techniques that public school districts try,” Norquist said. “They’re creating charter schools, creating magnet schools, … but fundamentally, the problem is that it’s all part of an education-finance monopoly.
“When that public money all goes to the public school district and the parents don’t really control it, then you get what you have in all major metropolitan areas, which is selection against the city–or wherever poor people live, you get school choice by geography.”
Detroit, Norquist said, is a prime example: There, people who can afford to do so move to suburbs like Grosse Point Farms to escape low-performing urban school districts. But in Chicago, a little more choice is provided by the city’s private school network, often used by wealthier parents. Chicago also has more political accountability than other urban school systems, Norquist said.
“Everyone knows who the mayor is,” Norquist noted, “and if the schools get worse, then that would be part of the record he’d have to defend at the next election.”
Vouchers Are Best
Norquist said he’d like to see Chicago adopt a voucher model similar to the ones already operating in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, DC, and parts of Florida, where state aid follows the parents’ wishes to public, private, or parochial schools. Such programs are also being used in Canada and western Europe.
“Even socialist Sweden has private school choice,” he said.
Greg McConnell ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Palatine, Illinois.