$40 million worth of school improvements follow in wake of Obama Center project

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson returned to her alma mater, Hyde Park Academy High School, on Tuesday to tout a $40 million investment into the historic school — a South Side neighborhood slated for a transformation that will be headlined by the Barack Obama Presidential Center.

“There are new things happening in this community with the Obama Library and we’re all excited about that, but we also want to respect the institutions that have been here educating kids for hundreds of years, and make sure that there’s a good synergy between the two,” Jackson said.

Jackson pointed to Hyde Park Academy as an example of performance gains at CPS schools: 92 percent of the academy’s freshman are on track to graduate, better than CPS’ systemwide average of 89.4 percent. That’s a promising sign for a school that has struggled to graduate its students. The school’s five-year graduation rate is 61.3 percent, well behind CPS’ 78.2 percent average.

Hyde Park is one of 22 Chicago high schools following the International Baccalaureate curriculum, equivalent in rigor to advanced-placement courses. Jackson said it was time to invest in the building “to make sure that the facilities match the academics in the hard work that’s happening in this school.”

Byron Brazier, pastor of the nearby Apostolic Church of God and one of the strongest community voices behind the investment, said the high school will play a crucial role in the neighborhood’s revitalization.

He sketched a vision for a community  anchored by the Obama Center and the Museum of Science and Industry at its northern border, and by a planned Tiger Woods-designed golf course at the southern end, with the high school in the middle. Construction is slated to start next year on the Obama Center, but the project still faces challenges, including a lawsuit and federal reviews.

“If you have that kind of infrastructure, it’s just reasonable to say we have to invest in this high school,” Brazier said, also pointing to nearby, top-rated elementary schools John Fiske Elementary and Andrew Carnegie Elementary. “We require a [top-rated] high school to go along with that, so that Hyde Park becomes the school of choice for the residents of Woodlawn.”

Even as enrollment shrinks, the school district is pursuing an ambitious, $1 billion capital plan.  Plans for new schools have stirred up heated controversy.

The renovations at Hyde Park Academy are underway, and one of the first finished projects is a revamped gymnasium. It serves as a symbol of the school’s revitalization, not only because the glistening new gym replaces one with peeling paint and holes in the wall, but also because gyms often are showcases for school spirit, according to physical education teacher Ralph Bennett.

“When you have school events, it makes kids feel so much better to go into a place that’s not raggedy, and that they can be proud of,” Bennett said.