Room for Improvement 

Jones Prep finally gets its renovated building back, but only after a bewildering struggle with city bureaucracy.

Four years ago, in a much ballyhooed move bannered in the pages of both downtown dailies, the Board of Education created Jones College Prep, a high school in the Loop for high achievers. And ever since, the board's been making the lives of its teachers, students, and staff difficult.

The latest chapter in this ongoing saga is mostly good. After a year at a temporary north-side site, Jones will be moving back to its old location at 606 S. State, which is in the final stages of renovation. "We're going back--we want the world to know that we have our old building back," says Cynthia Baron, Jones's principal. "We'll be moving in all summer so that starting in the fall that's where our students will attend school."

Yet the board still hasn't got around to building an addition the school badly needs, and school officials will have to keep begging the board to make good on the promise. "It never ends," says Walter Paas, chairman of the Jones local school council. "You have to stay on them and stay on them. If you let up once you can get lost in the politics and bureaucracy."

Jones Prep was conceived back in 1998 by former schools CEO Paul Vallas in response to Mayor Daley's directive to create a series of college prep high schools whose enrollment would be limited to students who did exceptionally well on entrance exams. Daley's goal was to reverse what he called a "brain drain"--parents of bright high school students moving to the suburbs or sending their children to private schools. The Board of Education spent more than $200 million building two new high schools on the north side (Northside Prep and Walter Payton) and remaking two old schools on the south side (King and Brooks). Additional money was to be spent on Jones, which was to serve the central city as well as draw good students from all over Chicago.

The plan was to simply convert Jones Commercial High School, a vocational school with a long history of preparing juniors and seniors for jobs in downtown businesses, into Jones Prep--a plan that showed Vallas at his best and his worst. It was a good idea to create a school for the booming central city, yet it meant eradicating a fine vocational program, which has never been adequately replaced. In addition, the plan wouldn't be easy to implement. It required purchasing and demolishing the Pacific Garden Mission, a homeless shelter just south of Jones, and replacing it with a four-story addition that would house a gym, a library, and several fine-arts classrooms. Nevertheless, Vallas predicted that the project would be finished in two years.

In the fall of 1998 Jones College Prep opened its doors to its first class of freshman, even though the last of the vocational students were still using the building. For three years the prep school operated out of the old high school while the renovation and construction project was dogged by delays, largely because finding a new home for the mission was proving difficult. "We needed two things--we needed the old building renovated, and we needed an addition," says Baron. "The old building needed to be renovated because it just wasn't made to be a college-prep high school. It wasn't wired for the technological age. It didn't have the labs and visual-arts rooms. We were always having to make adjustments."

That put Jones at a disadvantage in the competition for high-achieving students. Unlike Payton and Northside, it didn't have a new building to flaunt when wooing students at its open houses. "It was always a matter of faith with us," says Paas. "We would be reassuring parents of the fine building to come."

That Jones College Prep survived is a testament to Baron's resourcefulness, says Paas. "I remember the open house I attended [in 1998] when my oldest daughter, Danica, was in eighth grade," he says. "Dr. Baron got up, said she was the proud principal of a great school and that she was working on associations with different universities in the Loop. She said they were eventually going to be housed in a bigger and newly renovated building. But the program sounded exciting even without the new building."

According to Paas, Baron and the teachers created a high school in which students could thrive. "You can take just about anything here, including five different languages," he says. "They even teach Chinese. We have great outreach programs to the universities. The key is the downtown location. We're at the center of everything. You can pretty much walk anywhere. We have a linkup with Columbia College and DeVry and Robert Morris and the Art Institute. My daughters took drawing at the Art Institute. And yet there was always this feeling that we could do so much more once we got our new building."

Finally, in the spring of 2001 the board announced that the renovation and construction project would begin with or without the addition--the Pacific Garden Mission still hadn't been relocated. "Basically, they decided to renovate the old building first, and then figure out what to do with the mission," says Paas. "Obviously, that meant waiting for our gym, but we were relatively pleased."

The big drawback was that they would have to move Jones for the 2001-'02 school year. "They couldn't have all that construction work going on while students were taking tests or in classes," says Paas. "They decided to relocate us to the old Near North High School."

It seemed like a sensible decision. Near North, at 1450 N. Larrabee, was being phased out--by 2001 only about 93 seniors were attending the school. Yet the building was in relatively good shape, and it had an outdoor running track, a baseball diamond, and a basketball gym. "As far as sports was concerned, it was even better than what we had on South State," says Paas. "So we were ready to give it our best effort."

Then, in the first week of August, the board hit the Jones parents and staff with a bombshell. "They told us that we wouldn't be able to go to Near North," says Paas. "They said that there had been a mistake, that Near North had been promised to the CHA by the city. The CHA was going to have it demolished and sold as part of the greater plan to build replacement housing for people relocated from Cabrini-Green."

Angry staff and parents wanted to know how the board could have promised Jones the use of a building already promised to the CHA. Both the board and the CHA were run by officials handpicked by Mayor Daley--didn't they talk to one another? And why the big rush to demolish Near North? The Cabrini-Green plan had been dragging along for years. Bids hadn't even been solicited. Couldn't the city just wait another year until Jones had moved back to its renovated building?

"They didn't have any real explanations or answers--they made their announcement and told us basically that's it," says Paas. "You can imagine what sort of panic this threw us into. The board said they would split up our school for a year. Freshmen would go to Walter Payton, sophomores would go to Whitney Young, and juniors and seniors would be housed at various universities downtown. It was so sketchy--no one knew what was going on."

On August 8 board officials called a "problem-solving meeting" to answer questions from parents and staff. To their surprise, the meeting was attended by crews from all the major local TV stations, as well as reporters from both downtown dailies. They suddenly realized they had a major public-relations disaster on their hands. "There was pressure coming from everywhere," says Paas. "The board was getting calls from all over the city. Everyone was up in arms. It made no sense. You had officials from Young and Payton saying, 'Hey, this is not acceptable. How are we going to work these students into our building?'"

Baron believes that if the plan had been pushed through it would have destroyed Jones. "If they had scattered us three sheets to the wind," she says, "we would not have survived."

In the face of media pressure the board reversed its plans. On August 13 Arne Duncan, who'd replaced Vallas as CEO two months earlier, called a press conference to announce that it was all a misunderstanding and that Jones would be temporarily housed in Near North after all. "They never gave us a clear explanation as to why we couldn't move there, and they never gave us a clear explanation as to why all of a sudden we could move there," says Paas. "We were happy though."

And so the Jones staff and students spent the last school year at Near North while their old school was renovated. "It wasn't easy, but we made our adjustmentsâ" says Baron. "On June 17 our first class will graduate. I'm very proud of our students and staff. It's just been such a struggle. And it's not over."

The board has been reviewing an alternative plan that would build the addition on a parking lot just south of the mission. "That way we could build our gym and our library without having to wait for the mission to be moved," says Paas. "Duncan says he's studying it, but he says he doesn't want to make a commitment he can't keep. He says he'd rather underpromise and overdeliver. I guess that's in contrast to Vallas, who tended to do things the other way around."

Asked about the new plans, board spokeswoman Lucy Ramirez said, "We're not authorized to say what's going on. You have to talk to the Public Building Commission. They're overseeing the project. I've got nothing to offer on this issue." Jack Beary, a spokesman for the PBC, said, "Questions about the Pacific Garden Mission are still being looked at by the Chicago Public Schools. So you'd probably be better off talking to them about that."

In the meantime, Baron says, the school is doing more adjusting. "The renovation is wonderful, but we still don't have the space we need because we don't have the addition," she says. "Since we don't have our new library, we'll put a temporary library where our visual arts should be. And our visual arts will go where our special ed should be, and our special ed will be where the English seminars should be, and the English seminars will get crammed somewhere else. Our counselors won't even have offices. They'll meet with their students in the hallways. You get the idea. We'll continue. We'll survive. Our students will excel. But it's rough--much rougher than it has to be."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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