EDGEBROOK — When Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in September that Wildwood Elementary School would finally get an annex to relieve severe overcrowding, third-grade teacher Patricia Payne burst into tears.
After teaching for 25 years at the Edgebrook school, which offers a magnet program and an International Baccalaureate curriculum, Payne — seated in the front row — said she was thrilled she will finally get a chance to move out of the crowded mobile classroom where she now teaches third grade.
And while Payne is approaching retirement, friends and colleagues should put those party plans on hold. Payne — who has taught practically every grade at the school — isn’t planning to go anywhere until long after the annex is built.
“I’m grateful to be at Wildwood,” Payne said. “There are great parents, great staff and great students.”
The $15 million annex, which will include 16 classrooms, will ease the space crunch at Wildwood, which has a utilization rate of 175 percent, one of the highest in the city.
Last year, Payne served as the school’s reading specialist, and helped students who were struggling in large classes by giving them one-on-one instruction.
“All children are not at the same level,” Payne said. “Some kids need that extra push.”
Principal Mary Beth Cunat said Payne, a member of the school’s leadership committee, plays an “invaluable” role at the school, which has some of the highest test scores in the city.
“Because she knows every student and has a relationship with all of them, I can put her in any room, at any grade level, in any subject,” Cunat said.
Despite her versatility, Payne is glad to be teaching third grade this year, her favorite.
“They are not quite babies but not too old that you can’t have fun with them,” Payne said.
Payne’s classes are full of give and take, with students falling out of their chairs on a recent Tuesday to participate in a discussion about different types of literature. Payne said her class this year is especially special, since she taught most of them in first grade.
“I really believe in a caring classroom,” Payne said. “I ask them to put themselves in the other person’s footsteps. I work to foster fairness, equity and cooperative learning.”
Payne’s lengthy career is due to her love of learning — and her deep affection for the students, Cunat said.
“She’s never let herself be bored or get mired in a routine,” Cunat said. “She’s really embraced the challenge of 21st Century learning, and never let her [teaching] practice get static.”
Payne’s three children — the youngest of whom is now in high school — attended Wildwood, making the trip everyday from their Southeast Side home.
Payne said she became a Chicago Public Schools teacher not only to give back to the system that nurtured her love of learning, but also to honor her father, who spent his career as a public school teacher in Chicago.
“I don’t know anything else,” Payne said. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”