EAST VILLAGE — Students at Wells High School are ''in tears" after a plan to build a real athletic field at the school to replace the "concrete jungle" where students are currently forced to practice fell through.
School officials and parents plan to meet with Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale Thursday about the failure of the plan to build a new field at the school at 936 N. Ashland Ave., but Chicago Public School officials have made no promises because fundraising has fallen far short of what's needed to construct the field, dubbed "Field of Hope."
The school now only has a large patch of concrete outside — one that has been described as "a pitiful, pitiful concrete jungle" by Ald. Joe Moreno (1st). Athletes are forced to make do; members of the rugby club, for example, do push-ups outside on a sidewalk behind the school.
Wells High School's Rugby Club practices. (Provided by Bob Zwolinski)
Principal Rita Raichoudhuri said a new field is sorely needed.
"We have injuries all the time because they are playing on broken concrete," said Raichoudhuri, who estimated that 55 percent of boys and 44 percent of the girls at Wells are involved in sports.
The school's softball, baseball and track teams all practice on concrete and use Eckhart Park, 1330 W. Chicago Ave., though the park is often booked.
Raichoudhuri also said she's "very grateful" for Moreno's efforts to revive the project and excited for an opportunity to meet with Vitale.
"We want [Vitale] to see the human condition behind this and how it all got kiboshed through technicalities," she said, adding, "Our seniors graduating this year are now in tears. They worked the hardest and went to fundraisers."
Alisa Hauser explain why the project has stalled:
The plan to build a new field was introduced in 2012, and it included athletic fields, a movie screen and a dog park. Those pushing the plan partnered with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation in Baltimore.
"We look for places where kids need safe, clean outdoor space for athletics. There was a tremendous need at Wells, an urban public school with no outdoor athletic space. There was a lot of passion among faculty at the school but at same time a lot of frustration with having to find and borrow other fields," said Chuck Brady, vice president of the Ripken Foundation.
The school, which serves 535 students, has raised $220,000 for the field; $150,000 from Moreno's 1st Ward aldermanic menu fund; $50,000 from the Chicago Cubs; and $20,000 from internal school fundraisers.Principal Raichoudhuri, the school's field
A $125,000 grant from Baseball Tomorrow will expire if the field is not completed by summer. And $500,000 was slated to come in from Under Armour, the apparel chain.
But that grant, arranged by Brady, required matching funds from the community, which it did not get.
Plus, there was a deadline of completing the field by March, to coincide with the opening of Under Armour's new Downtown store, so that money was put toward building a field in Marquette Park instead, the Sun-Times reported.
But the missed deadlines came after the plan hit another snag, which they blame on CPS.
Yvette Hernandez, a former local school council member; Susan Nusbaum, a retired Wells teacher who's leading fundraising initiatives; and Raichoudhuri said they were told in December by CPS that the field construction could not happen due to rules prohibiting outside vendors.
Since that came after two years of planning, Hernandez said. It "was derailed by CPS at the zero hour," she said.
Said Raichoudhuri, "The rub is we have been in conversations about this for two years and information on procurement was not shared with us until December. We could not plan around this and did not see it coming."
The Ripken Foundation, which agreed to pony up $350,000 toward the project if other sources were secured, also thought CPS was on board since 2012.
"We asked the Wells folks if this plan was approved by CPS and we were assured that they had seen the various concept plans and designs. Our understanding was we would raise the money for the project and bring our team of builders to come in and build the field," Brady said.
CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said that CPS' facilities team first got involved in the project in June and after meeting with Brady in December to "talk about what we can do to save the project," CPS agreed to put $300,000 toward the field.
But McCaffrey contends that the procurement process is secondary to the fact there is not enough money raised for the plan.
Besides, CPS estimates the cost of building a multipurpose athletic field to be $4.9 million. The Ripken Foundation — which has built 40 athletic fields around the country with vendor SportsFields — estimates the job at $2.7 million.
Still, McCaffrey noted the district welcomes all the outside help it can get: "We have a billion-dollar budget deficit; we would never rule the possibility out of improving a school, especially if private money is available."
Early Conceptual Rendering/Wells High School Field of Hope Facebook Page
"It's not an open and shut case and it's not a surprise dropped on someone all at one time, at the end. We want to work with the [Ripken Foundation] but can't turn the project over to them if they can't complete it," McCaffrey said.
After impassioned testimonials by students in front of the Board of Education last Thursday, the group, including Moreno, arranged a private meeting with CPS' Board of Education President David Vitale, set for Thursday.
"We demanded [Vitale] meet with us. They promised they would and actually came through," Moreno said on Monday.
McCaffrey said Thursday's meeting with Vitale is to see if there is a way to move forward and get a field at Wells, though made it clear: "It was not on CPS to raise the money for this field."
Nusbaum said she hopes the meeting will shine a light on the school's plight.
"This is an inner city school which means no frills, no extras. Most high schools have fields. Finding a field to play on, it's like wandering through the desert without a home," Nusbaum said.
Hernandez said, "We want to see action by CPS. We have put our heart and soul into this project and will continue to fight until Wells has a field to call their own."
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