WEST TOWN — Almost a year after the Chicago Board of Education decided West Town's Peabody Elementary School would be among 50 public schools to close, a nearby community organization said it wants to buy the school so it can expand its early childhood and parent education programs.
Northwestern Settlement, 1400 W. Augusta Blvd., is interested in buying and rehabbing the 1890s-era school building and its annex.
"For the past 120 years, we’ve been side by side," said Ron Manderschied, Northwestern Settlement's president.
The settlement once hosted Peabody's PE classes and graduation ceremonies and also used the school grounds at 1444 W. Augusta Blvd. for some of its own programming, Manderschied said.
Northwestern Settlement would use some of the roughly 50,000 square feet of extra space to take its Head Start program, for children of low-income families, from 80 kids ages 3-5 to a 150-child program that also serves infants and toddlers ages 0-5.
It would also bolster programs for parents, AmeriCorps service initiatives and house administrative operations in addition to creating new programs, Manderschied said. The organization expected the expansion would add 30-40 new jobs.
Plus, it would mean Northwestern Settlement could continue to use Peabody's playground.
"There is literally no other place, at least within three blocks, where our nursery school kids can go out and play," Manderschied said.
The Board of Education needs to approve of every school sale, and Northwestern Settlement faces competition from at least three other groups that have expressed interest in buying Peabody, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said during a community meeting this week at Northwestern Settlement.
According to Burnett, who is on Northwest Settlement's board, Ranquist Development Group, Midwestern Education Group and another organization also want to buy the shuttered school.
Ranquist Development declined to comment and Midwestern Education could not be reached.
Yaned Gonzalez, 32, who teaches a knitting class for adults at the settlement and has two children who graduated from the Head Start program, spoke up at the meeting about the need for expansion.
"We do a lot of good programs here," Gonzalez, 32, said through an interpreter. "And it helps the community, it helps a lot of parents here, but we’re running out of space that we need."
Chicago Public Schools in March launched a Web page dedicated to school "repurposing" and stated it would award buildings still up for grabs to the highest bidder. Currently, it is accepting ideas ahead of a more formal process to come, according to the website.
CPS has also specified that the prospect of a charter school buying one of the empty buildings was "off the table."
The Noble Network of Charter Schools' original campus is a tenant inside Northwestern Settlement's building, and Manderschied himself was president of the network for about four years.
And though Noble and Northwestern Settlement had been entwined since the settlement helped set up the charter operation in 1999, Manderschied said the two organizations have been independent from each other since 2009, and none of the Peabody space would be used for Noble.
Though Manderschied said the organization didn't have "100 percent of a plan" at the moment and was still trying to understand the actual process for buying a school, the company has hired an architect and is working with a real estate consultant to develop a proposal.
It has also started fundraising for the repurposing and has enough money to start, Manderschied said.
Noble Square resident Gabrielle Warren, another who spoke in support of the settlement's expansion, said that she started out attending programs as a teen and is now about to graduate from college.
"There are so many children just out and about because there’s nothing for them to do," Warren said. "They’re hanging around and playing video games or just on the corner. And I think that that’s because there’s a lack of programming for them.
"And I think if you allow us to acquire this property that it will just bring so many more opportunities for the youth and parents of the youth."
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