Mayoral candidate Gery Chico vowed Wednesday to create eight new selective enrollment high schools — four by building new schools and four by re-purposing half-empty high schools –– to reverse an exodus that has left the Chicago Public Schools with 150,000 more seats than students.
To prevent parents from “voting with their feet,” Chico also wants to give them the choice to send their kids to Level 1 schools with 60,000 vacancies, triple the number of social workers and International Baccalaureate programs and build six more vocational and technical high schools.
“Parents are applying for selective enrollment programs at eight, nine, ten times capacity to accept students That’s way too stressful. And it’s causing an exodus of good students from or system. We need to keep them,” Chico said.
As a former board president of CPS, City Colleges and the State Board of Education, Chico has more credibility and experience in education than any of the other candidates vying to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
His ambitious education agenda is grounded in the notion that “four-year universities are not for everyone” and that students need to be exposed early to alternatives that lead to substantial careers.
Towards that end, he wants to require middle school students to take “one or two courses” of career and technical education programs offered in high school and ensure that they graduate from high school with apprenticeship certificates.
“Trades [union] leaders are telling me people with four-year college degrees are seeking to enter their apprenticeship programs so they can pay off college debt. They’re prepared to invest capital and time to craft this curriculum and make this four-year program with a certificate of eligibility for apprenticeship a reality,” Chico said.
“We have to seize the moment…No more talking about how there aren’t African-American men and women in the trades. Time to do something about it.”
CPS has 150,000 more seats than students. Much of that excess capacity is located in South and West Side neighborhoods hard hit by a black exodus from the city. Pressure is building for another round of school closings now that a five-year moratorium has expired.
Other mayoral candidates have run from the issue of school closings, well aware of the heavy political price Emanuel paid for closing a record 50 public schools.
Chico vowed to confront the issue head-on, even as he simultaneously moves to “re-purpose” shuttered schools “blighting” neighborhoods into community centers, affordable housing, retail, mental health centers and job training facilities.
“I have not closed the door on school closings because, the more I keep open a school that has a handful of students, I’m not doing right by the students in that neighborhood who may benefit under a better set of options,” Chico said.
“We will work with communities to have discussions where there are a handful of students in schools and it doesn’t make sense to keep them open anymore….We’re not gonna leave people in the lurch. It makes it hard to operate when those 50 closures still sit there in that fashion. We need to get that done very quickly. But we don’t have the luxury of just sequencing these things. We’ve got to be walking and chewing gum at the same time.”
When the Illinois General Assembly gave former Mayor Richard M. Daley control over CPS in 1995, Chico was dispatched to the schools in a dream-team pairing with fellow mayoral candidate Paul Vallas.
They raised test scores, reduced class sizes, expanded after-school and tutoring programs and embarked on a $3 billion school construction spree that built 16 new schools, 27 school annexes and 29 school additions.
They built Gwendolyn Brooks and Jones College Prep, along with two of the state’s most highly-acclaimed selective enrollment high schools: Walter Payton and North Side Prep. North Side came to be known as “Chico High” because it was built in time for Chico’s daughters to attend.
Pressed on how he would pay for the new round of school construction, Chico talked about three different sources: the $43 million property tax increase approved by the City Council in 2015 and earmarked exclusively for school construction; tax-increment-financing (TIF) surpluses; and his proposal for a 1.2 percent tax on homes sold at more than $1 million.
Despite a $450 million windfall in state funding, Chico also demanded that the Illinois General Assembly “fully-fund” both pensions for Chicago teachers as well as a “per-pupil suggested level” of funding now short by $4,000-per-student.
“If we do those things, we’ll have more than enough money to, not only build and re-purpose these schools I’m talking about, but go into every neighborhood and make sure that every school is high quality physically with the labs that are necessary today’s education,” he said.