School Opening, Not Closing, the Hot Topic at Disney II Magnet

By Patty Wetli on February 27, 2013 7:12am 

 Thurgood Marshall Middle School is an oft-mentioned location for Disney II Magnet High School.
Thurgood Marshall Middle School is an oft-mentioned location for Disney II Magnet High School.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

IRVING PARK — While school closings continue to dominate discussions surrounding Chicago Public Schools, Disney II Magnet's plan to open a high school expansion seems to have fallen off the radar.

"There's really no update," Principal Bogdana Chkoumbova said at this month's Local School Council meeting. "There's been no specific information that I've been given."

No stranger to the expansion process, Chkoumbova was at Disney II's helm in 2008 when the elementary school, which now goes through sixth grade, opened as a "replication" school of Walt Disney Magnet School.

"Part of the success of Disney II was the incubation period of a year," she said. "The more planning time you have, the more comfortable you feel."

With the start of the 2013-14 school year just six months away, the council expressed growing concerns.

"The longer we go, the more we risk," said Dennis Gragert, parent representative on the council.

Matt Robertson, vice chairman of the council, is the father of a Disney II sixth-grader who next year would attend the new campus, where Disney II would add seventh and eighth grades along with high school classes.

"It keeps us up at night," he said of the uncertainty.

A lack of forward progress on the part of Central Office prompted the council late last week to submit a request for information to, among others, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and school board president David Vitale.

The letter focused on the need for resources, including staff and technology, and urged CPS to identify a home for the school.

The latter is especially vital to recruitment and enrollment of students, as well as engaging the surrounding community.

"The parents always want to know where my child's going to go," Chkoumbova said. "We want to create a positive experience, not last-minute halfway baked."

In the absence of any definitive word from CPS, rumor and speculation have filled the void.

Community groups such as the Greater Independence Park Neighborhood Association have drawn their own conclusions. The group is operating under the assumption that Disney II high school will occupy the building that currently houses Thurgood Marshall Middle School at 3900 N. Lawndale Ave., a "receiver" school that enrolls students from overcrowded buildings elsewhere in the city.

Though Marshall, an underperforming school at that's only 45 percent full, was on the initial list of possible school closings, it was not among the pared-down list of 129 schools.

Still the association has Marshall in its sights, and should it become home of Disney II, the neighborhood group wants a seat at the table.

Five years ago, the group proposed creating an International Baccalaureate high school as an alternative to Schurz High School, the neighborhood school.

"That fell on deaf ears," said Jennifer Byrd, the group's school committee chairwoman.

Now, with the potential for a high-performing high school in its midst, the association is taking a proactive approach to securing seats at Disney II for neighborhood children.

The group crafted a letter of its own to CPS, with a proposal that would give qualifying children in the Independence Park area higher priority access to the Disney II high school — the same automatic acceptance granted to Disney II elementary students — should it take over the middle school.

"It seems so counter-intuitive to bus kids in while our kids go out. If you can walk to the school, you should have access," Byrd said. "Our whole point was to get ahead of whatever happens. We'd like to be part of the conversation."

While Chkoumbova is eager to have those discussions — once she's been told Disney II's actual location — she also acknowledges that magnet schools have a fine line to walk between the needs of the neighborhood and the needs of the school system as a whole.

"I have opened a school to give more choices," she said. "I'm a parent. I have two daughters. I know how difficult limited choices are.

"Can we find a silver bullet to fulfill everyone's needs? Probably not."

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