DUNNING — The announcement Friday that Arthur E. Canty Elementary School will get an $18 million annex is "like a dream come true" for parents and students who have been pleading for an addition to the Northwest Side school for 15 years.
Funds for the 16-classroom annex, which will include a lunchroom that will also serve as a multipurpose room, were included in Chicago Public Schools' 2015 capital improvement plan unveiled Friday.
Canty parents and school officials have been begging city and CPS officials since 1998 to do something to relieve severe overcrowding that has forced students to eat lunch in the auditorium and to study in hallways.
In February, Canty officials unearthed a 10-year-old letter from then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel asking then-CPS CEO Arne Duncan to make building an annex at Canty, 3740 N. Panama St., a priority.
Frank Paolucci, a member of the Dunning school's Local School Council, read the letter aloud to the Board of Education during a public meeting.
Ald. Nick Sposato (36th), who said he had been lobbying school district and city officials for an addition to Canty for months, said he was not sure if the letter had anything to do with the Dunning school being one of three city schools being picked for an annex.
"It might be a situation where the squeaky wheel gets the grease," Sposato said. "The parents have been pounding away on this issue."
Canty, which was in the 36th Ward before the City Council districts were redrawn last year, will become part of the 38th Ward — now represented by Ald. Tim Cullerton — when the 2015 aldermanic elections take place. Chicago Public Schools officials have begun following the new map, and consider the school part of Cullerton's 38th Ward.
Stacy Babich, who has a son in fifth grade and a son in third grade, said news that the annex would start construction in July and open in September 2015 "is a dream come true" after years of feeling ignored by district officials.
"Our frustration level was very high," Babich said. "We didn't want to be pushed out of the city."
The annex means that Canty students will receive a "well-rounded" education with the extracurricular activities they deserve, said Babich, who burst into tears of joy when Cullerton called Thursday night to tell her the annex would be built.
"I was standing in the middle of a hockey rink with tears running down my face," Babich said. "It is just unbelievable. I'm ecstatic."
Canty Principal Lucja Mirowska-Kopec said an annex will allow the school to fulfill its mission as a fine and performing arts magnet school. For example, because the auditorium is now full of students eating lunch most of the day, drama students rarely get to practice on the stage, she said.
"That defeats the purpose," Mirowska-Kopec said, adding that students will also be able to practice playing musical instruments without fear of disrupting other students once the annex is built.
Students will have the space to play musical instruments without fear of disrupting another class and to act in drama class on the auditorium stage, she said.
The school's existing kitchen will be converted to a classroom and the school's playground will be replaced. The school will also get some new furniture and the school's technology infrastructure will be improved, Cullerton said.
Cullerton and Sposato praised Babich for leading the fight for an annex for Canty, which the school's website calls "imperative."
Canty's utilization rate is nearly 154 percent, making it among the most overcrowded schools in the area, with 831 students attending class in a building meant for no more than 540, according to data from CPS.
But the school has an eight-classroom modular building, giving the school an adjusted utilization rate of 111 percent, giving it an "efficient" rating, according to data provided by CPS.
In 2004, when Emanuel wrote Duncan, the school had 577 students. Emanuel at the time represented Illinois' 5th Congressional District, which includes Dunning.
Kindergarten through eighth-grade students at Canty have been forced to work one-on-one with teachers in the hallway, while most of the school's storage space and administration offices have been converted into classrooms, Babich said.
Babich said her fifth grade son struggled this year after being "crammed" into a classroom with 35 students.
Most other schools on the Far Northwest Side face a similar space crunch because of an influx of families looking for affordable homes in a relatively safe area of the city. Those families' children have filled many Northwest Side schools' classrooms to the bursting point, according to city census data.
In January, while celebrating the completion of an annex at Edison Park Elementary School, Emanuel said students should never have had to study in hallways or cafeterias.
Canty, which is ranked among the best CPS schools by district officials, will celebrate its 65th anniversary on May 22 with an open house and an anniversary banquet on May 23.