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Kids in Pressure Cooker at Top-Rated, But Overcrowded Decatur Classical

By Linze Rice | December 9, 2015 6:09am
 Decatur Classical School in West Ridge is one of the city's top selective enrollment elemtary schools despite the lack of space.
Decatur Overcrowding
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WEST RIDGE — Students from across the city vie to get into Decatur Classical School, an elementary school with a stellar academic reputation on the city's Far North Side.

But a tour of the school, which is severely overcrowded, doesn't take long.

"I'll give you the five-cent tour," said Principal Susan Kukielka, standing near the school's entrance at the top of a long hallway. She extends her arm, and declares: "That's the whole school, that's it."

After years of seeking a solution to the overcrowding to no avail, Decatur's leaders are again cranking up their campaign for more space, especially as Chicago Public Schools budget cuts loom. The school, which educates students from kindergarten until sixth grade, also wants to add a seventh and eighth grade so students don't face so much pressure trying to find a school to attend for those years before again having to find a high school.

The situation is frustrating, school supporters say, because the school has been repeatedly praised and held up as an example for other schools.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a letter to the school in 2012 the institution was an "exemplary model" that provided students with the "quality education and programs they deserve." The Level 1+ school — CPS' top ranking — has rated as a top elementary school in the state by several organizations over the years, including by Chicago Magazine, the Sun-Times and the Tribune.

But school leaders and parents say the school doesn't have many things widely available at other schools, and say it deserves more resources to work with.

The building currently houses about 282 students. For most grades, there is only one classroom of kids.

In an administrative room, the only adult bathroom in the school is located among the part-time nurse's supplies, space for diverse learners, advanced placement lessons, counseling and more.

Each classroom is the same size and shape, with one fixed as a computer lab and another built as a science lab. On Friday, three students were playing the violin for their classmates in the science lab, which is used as a makeshift music room.

The school spends about $10,000 in funds each year to rent out a gym at a neighboring Jewish Community Center because there is not space for all the students to use the gym at once safely. [Provided]

There is no cafeteria. Students line up for lunches wheeled out in carts in the hallway where they pay before walking back to their desk and to eat. The hallway is also where impromptu speech lessons or social work meetings take place when the private administrator's room is in use by any number of groups.

The library isn't an option for peace or privacy, either.

It's where the music, literacy and Latin teacher, along with upper grade literacy instructors, all have desks and share planning space — often at the same time music lessons and student groups are in the room as well.

When it comes to recess, only 95 people are allowed in the gym at once according to its occupancy warning.

When the weather is bad, students are forced to stay inside, bound to their classrooms.

If weather is inclement from January until spring, students use the neighboring Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center gym for recess because they can't all fit in the school's gym — which costs the school $10,000 a year to rent. After seeing deep cuts in this year's budget, the extra expense doesn't help.

In November, the school held an awards ceremony in the gym to honor Decatur's only official sport, the cross country team. Only students in grades three through six could squeeze into the gym.

What's more, the Decatur community has called for the addition of a seventh and eighth grade for years, not only to model the typical K-8 structure, but to provide a safety net for students facing high-pressure situations as they transition out of sixth grade.

Classical schools were designed so students would automatically be accepted into one of the city's Academic Centers, but later changed to an application process so more students could be considered for those programs.

That means starting at 11 years old, fifth-grade students must receive nearly all A's and scores in in the upper 90th percentiles on both standardized tests and on a selective enrollment entrance exam. Decatur officials said about 40 percent of sixth-graders usually get rejection letters despite having straight A's.

By then, they are forced to move on to another option: Cease their Classical education and move out of the district, to name a few. Neighborhood and private schools provide other options.

"I really want there to be a seventh and eighth grade here, 'cause I feel like sixth grade is too young to have that much pressure on you to get into a good school," Eve Fries, a sixth-grader at Decatur, said. "I feel like you'd be better off having that much pressure on you going into high school than seventh grade."

It's no wonder why things are so tight at the West Ridge school.

Decatur was founded in 1978 originally as Greene Classical with grades one through six, and shared space with Boone Elementary School. In 1988, CPS added kindergarten to each classical school, causing Greene/Decatur to quickly outgrow the building.

Shortly after it was given its own building and new name, Stephen F. Decatur Classical School at 7030 N. Sacramento Ave.

Their new digs was an existing building originally constructed as a "starter school" to house only kindergartners through second-graders, with the intention to eventually expand, according to the Local School Council.

But that never happened — and as the school developed into the now K-6 model, demand for seats at the high-level elementary grew.

Now, the average class size fluctuates generally between 29-30 students, the LSC said, but some of those classes may contain an entire grade level.

Kukielka, who's been at the school for the past 11 years, said for as long as she's been there, there has been a corroborated effort between parents, families and school administrators to work with CPS to find a solution to space issues.

Tim McCaffrey, a Decatur parent and LSC member, said CPS heads have acknowledged the overcrowding at the school in the past but deemed options at vacant schools like Trumbull in Andersonville and Stewart in Uptown unfit for Decatur's needs.

The school's library, which was originally a second kindergarten classroom, is used by multiple teachers and groups, often at the same time. The tex was added to the photo to illustrate how crowded the room gets. [Provided]

Facing a mounting billion-dollar debt, CPS has also told them year after year that financial restraints continue to be the main setback.

McCaffrey and Kukielka said they're open to any number of solutions: Moving into a new school, dividing Decatur's campus up into two buildings, expanding at the current site, or any other available option.

CPS officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Though CPS is running a deficit, some students, like Eve, are facing intense pressures now.

"It's the stress at that age they shouldn't have to go through, it's not right," Kukielka said. "I'd love the new building, I'd love the gym for them, I'd love the art room and the music room, and all of those wonderful things when you go into a brand new CPS school and go, 'Wow.' But it's that stress at that age."

It's unfortunate because Decatur is also a place that feels like "a little home base," Fries said. A place where she considers her teachers to be "like aunts and uncles."

She likes Decatur's many programs and clubs that range from chess and science, to taking courses in Latin.

But she wishes she could play other sports at school that she must do on her own time, like volleyball and softball. And when there is someone in her grade who she doesn't get along with, she wished there was a more diverse class from which to make friends and create healthy boundaries.

If she doesn't get into any of the selective-enrollment schools she is studying nightly for now, she knows she'll "be OK," though wouldn't mind falling back in with her "home base" if all doesn't work out.

Kuklielka, McCaffrey and Fries agreed: The school they all know and love needs more room to fully flourish and help kids reach the potential they so desire.

"Given what we have, we've provided," Kukielka said. "But that stress, if children could just continue through the fifth grade, through the sixth grade, learning and enjoying ... without that other [stress] on their shoulders, that's what I want."

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