On the first day of school this year, television crews and newspaper reporters swarmed the grounds of brand new Walter Payton College Preparatory High School. Connie Payton, widow of the late Chicago Bears running back, was on hand to cut a ceremonial ribbon, officially opening the magnet school designed for Region 2 on the Near North Side.
There was no such fanfare for the rechristening of Lindblom Tech as the college preparatory high school for Region 5 on the mid-South Side. Community leaders aren’t even aware of the change. “This is the first I’ve heard that it was a college prep,” admits state Rep. Daniel Burke, who represents the district where Lindblom is located.
Shirley Fox, a member of Lindblom’s advisory board from the Southwest Community Congress, also is in the dark. “I’d heard that the school was becoming a college prep, but not that it had happened.” she says. According to the School Board, it happened in fall 1999.
Payton and Lindblom are two of the six magnet high schools the School Board is spreading across the city to increase access to challenging academic programs. However, as the contrast in their openings illustrates, the college preps have not been created equal.
Disparities crop up in what amounts to a north-south divide. North of Madison Street: College preps are housed in lavish new facilities. South of Madison Street: College preps are having to retrofit old, existing buildings. North Side: Principals got nearly a year of lead time to recruit staff and plan curriculum. South Side: With one exception, principals had fewer than 30 days to convert an entire school’s format. North: Schools get a lot of early publicity that helps attract talented teachers and students. South: The board has done little to get the word out.
Two of the South Side college preps are on track following a turbulent start. Jones College Preparatory High School in the South Loop surged with support from nearby Roosevelt University and downtown business leaders. In Roseland, Southside College Preparatory High School has benefitted from lobbying by the Rev. James T. Meeks, pastor of Salem Baptist Church, who has championed the school with schools chief Paul Vallas.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” says Meeks.
But Lindblom College Preparatory High is languishing. It is on its third principal in 12 months. Teachers report a still-emerging college prep curriculum and low morale among the staff. They also say the school has trouble recruiting enough 8th-graders whose test scores meet the minimum admission requirement (6th stanine). Indeed, only 75 freshmen are enrolled this fall.
“Someone is going to have to step up to the plate for Lindblom,” says Ald. Anthony Beale (9th Ward), who also pushed the board to make improvements at Southside College Prep. “When you have elected officials, the clergy and community residents all coming together and getting involved, there’s nothing you can’t do.”
So far, college preps are open in five of the board’s six regions. The sixth one, King High in Kenwood, is being converted and is scheduled to open as a college prep next August.
In the view of Paul Vallas, there has been a fair distribution of resources. “Everything is comparable,” says the system’s chief executive officer. “We’ve put the same information out on all the schools. The standards are the same for all six of the schools—the money, the training, etcetera—all the same. I’ve made it a point to ensure fairness.”
Meeks sees the situation differently. At the time Southside was converted from a parochial school to a college prep, he says, “It appeared to me—and I had the data—that all the money was being spent on the north and northwest sides of the city. New construction was limited or non- existent south of 22nd Street.
“I told [Vallas] that with the school system being predominately African American and the leadership of the system being mainly non-African American, and school expenditures being the way they were, it didn’t look right, and it needed to be corrected.
“I don’t want to say that improvements [to South Side schools] were not on their radar, I’m sure they were. But community awareness has helped make sure that promises made are kept.”