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Oriole Park to Get Annex to Relieve Overcrowding; Wildwood Out of Luck

  Both Oriole Park and Wildwood elementary schools are overcrowded — but only one is getting a new annex.
Annex to Relieve Overcrowding at Oriole Park, But Wildwood is Out of Luck
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CHICAGO — Oriole Park Elementary School in Norwood Park and Wildwood Elementary School in Edgebrook have a lot in common.

The two 41st Ward schools are both ranked among the best in the city, and both are packed to the rafters, with students forced to attend class in hallways, gyms and auditoriums because of the dearth of classroom space.

But only Oriole Park has had its pleas for help answered. The Chicago Public School's 2014 capital plan includes $20 million to build an annex at Oriole Park, 5424 N. Oketo Ave.

The plan includes no money for Wildwood, leaving parents and school officials frustrated and determined to redouble their efforts to draw attention to the conditions at the school, which they say compromise student learning and hinder achievement.

Wildwood Space Initiative
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Wildwood Elementary School

"Our parent community is baffled," said Wildwood Principal Mary Beth Cunat. "It is just simply not fair."

Both Oriole Park and Wildwood rank in the top 10 most crowded schools in the city, based on data provided by CPS.

Oriole Park's "ideal capacity" is 390 students, but 652 students were enrolled in the school on the far Northwest Side, with a utilization rate of 167 percent, according to CPS data.

Wildwood is even more crowded. Its "ideal capacity" is 240 students, but 420 students are enrolled, giving the school a utilization rate of 175 percent, according to CPS data.

Those figures may understate the space crunch at both schools. Illinois Raise Your Hand, a parent-run group, has criticized the school system, saying its calculations underestimate overcrowding.

Oriole Park's students attend classes in three buildings. First through third grades attend class in a modular building that was added to the campus six years ago.

The 80-year-old main building, which will undergo $2.5 million worth of repairs as part of the district's supplemental 2013 capital plan, houses 57 percent of the school's students.

The school's 80 pre-kindergarten students attend class at St. James Church, two blocks away.

Those students missed two days of classes last month, when a massive rainstorm flooded the church's basement and damaged the classrooms, Oriole Park Local School Council Chairwoman Colleen Schultz told the school board while testifying in favor of the construction of a new annex.

In addition, gym time is limited at the school, forcing students to travel when possible to the Chicago Park District's Oriole Park Field House for physical education, Schultz said.

The school's art and Chinese teachers do not have a classroom of their own, and the science lab can only be used by seventh and eighth grade students since it is used as a regular classroom for most of the day, Schultz said

"An addition to Oriole Park School would alleviate overcrowding, and allow us to provide our students with an environment conducive to learning, something every student deserves," Schultz told the board.

The school board is expected to approve the $161.8 million capital plan at its meeting in August. Because of the CPS budget crunch, the amount is much smaller than in years past. In 2013, the district spent $473 million on building renovations and construction.

The district's plan calls for work on the Oriole Park annex to begin in September and be completed in February 2015.

CPS spokesman Dave Miranda said the district's looming $1 billion budget deficit means it must "pick and choose" among deserving schools. 

Oriole Park was selected for an annex because it has the "highest need" of any school citywide and there are no other options for relieving the overcrowding such as changing the attendance boundaries, Miranda said.

The district's five-year capital plan acknowledges that schools in certain parts of the city—such as the far Northwest Side, where the population of school-age children has boomed due in part to affordable homes—are overcrowded. The plan "begins to address the need to relieve overcapacity through annual investments in new annexes" but Wildwood is not mentioned.

Jason Hernandez, senior aide to Ald. Mary O'Connor (41st), said the alderman urged school district officials to fund annexes at both schools. She has no idea why Oriole Park was picked over Wildwood, Hernandex said.

"The alderman will continue the fight," Hernandez said. "Wildwood has an outrageous utilization rate."

Wildwood is so overcrowded, its principal said she is going to be forced to take "extreme measures" before next fall. Enrollment at the school, which offers a magnet program and an International Baccalaureate curriculum, is expected to grow for the next three to four years, Cunat said.

Cunat is looking for space to move the school's kindergarten off campus, perhaps at a nearby church.

"I have grave concerns about that," Cunat said. "I anxiety about having them so far away. They won't be able to interact with the older kids as buddies, and both groups of kids have such a positive influence on each other. It is a horrible thing either way."

Other changes Cunat are weighing include whether to require students to eat lunch in their classrooms everyday rather than in the gym as they do now, whether to turn the library into classrooms and whether to split grades with a large number of students into two classes.

In addition, Cunat is considering using the auditorium stage to allow advanced students to do virtual learning while wearing noise-canceling headphones.

Cunat, who is waiting to hear whether the school will get a grant to purchase the expensive headphones, came up with the idea after she began sharing her office—located in a former closet off the library—with another teacher who wears the headphones while working.

"I simply can't run the kind of programs I want to run," Cunat said, adding that an effort to offer electives to small groups of students broke down earlier this year because of the lack of space.

Cunat and a group of parents plan to attend Wednesday's school board meeting to continue pressing Wildwood's case for an annex, and Cunat said she plans to meet with as many board members as possible.

An email campaign is also in the works, and Cunat said she hoped a parent-produced YouTube video would draw more attention to the problems at Wildwood.

"Our campaign is taking on a sense of urgency," Cunat said. "We are in danger of losing all this positivity."