WEST LOOP — A West Loop alderman says he has been in serious talks with Mayor Rahm Emanuel to expand overcrowded Skinner West Elementary School in the West Loop.
At a meeting at the new McDonald's headquarters last week, Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) said that a Skinner West expansion is part of a group of projects that could be funded by the new Neighborhood Opportunity Fund program.
"I know this community wants to expand Skinner School. Definitely [there are] density bonuses that we get around here can go toward that," Burnett said.
The new Neighborhood Opportunity Fund program allows developers to build in an expanded metro area — including new areas of the West Loop — and build bigger and taller projects in an effort to generate millions to rebuild blighted neighborhoods.
While 80 percent of the new funds will be earmarked to help the city's West and South sides, 10 percent of the cash will support improvements within one mile of the development site. A density bonus that developer Sterling Bay has applied for to build the new McDonald's headquarters could generate $300,000-$400,000 for the West Loop alone.
But Burnett cautioned that he wouldn't sign off on an expansion until a plan was in place to provide other benefits for West Side CPS schools in his ward.
"In order for me to do something at Skinner School with me closing schools on the West Side, I have to get something for the West Side schools first," Burnett said. "Those things are in the works."
A CPS spokesman said that the district was considering "an array of methods" to address overcrowding at Skinner West.
"As always, we will work with the community, including the alderman, to relieve overcrowding and ensure that each of our students can access a 21st century learning environment," the spokesman said in a statement.
Skinner Principal Deborah Clark did not return calls last week.
Bursting at the seams
Part selective-enrollment school, part neighborhood school, parents say classes at Skinner West are bursting at the seams.
Fadi Matalka, who serves on Skinner's Local School Council and has a daughter at the school, said that school had made a number of cuts in an effort to address overcrowding.
At the direction of CPS, the school cut a program that allowed classical students' siblings automatic enrollment at the school. Then, the number of classical classes was cut, making way for more neighborhood classes.
"That's when we realized we have a problem here," he said.
Class sizes have swelled to 40 students in some cases, parents report. Matalka's daughter has 35 students in her third-grade class.
Skinner West leaders have moved classes into science labs and are now talking about converting part of the school's library into a classroom.
Recently, they cut a tuition-based preschool program for 3-year-olds and a preschool program for children with autism, according to LSC members, to allow more space for other classes.
In addition to the school's main campus at 1260 W. Adams St., the school also operates a satellite campus at West Jackson Boulevard and South Aberdeen Street.
While expansion into the kindergarten building has helped address overcrowding, more classes — including two first-grade classes — are being moved to the satellite campus.
According to a report released in January, Skinner West had 1,042 students enrolled and was at 120 percent capacity, which CPS categorized as "efficient," not "overcrowded." Schools measured at 121 percent capacity were labeled as "overcrowded" in the report.
Still, Armando Chacon, a Skinner LSC member and real estate agent, said a Skinner expansion was the neighborhood's "No. 1 need."
"It supersedes everything else — a library, a field house, a community center. We've got to expand Skinner school," Chacon said.
More families coming
Neeta Vohra, who has three children at the school, said some Skinner parents were opting to move out of the city to the suburbs because of the overcrowded school.
"They are sick of dealing with uncertainty and overcrowding," she said. "It's such a desirable neighborhood because of that school, because of the location. We don't want to leave."
But new families replace the ones that move out, and more families are coming, said Chacon, who also serves as president of the West Central Association.
In the red-hot West Loop, hundreds of new family-sized condo units are expected to come online in the next two years alone, with more being approved, he said.
"Skinner is one of the major reasons why so many families have moved to the West Loop and why there is so much demand to live here," he said.
The school has helped people plant roots in the neighborhood, Chacon said. Before Skinner was rebuilt in 2009 with the help of TIF funding to add a neighborhood component to the school, a lot of new parents would move out of the neighborhood before their kids headed to kindergarten.
"To have all of these families now who want to stay, that's a pretty powerful thing," Chacon said. "In the West Loop, I only want families to move by choice, not because they feel they are being forced out by overcrowding."
Last month, the Chicago Board of Education bought a vacant building in order to expand South Loop Elementary School in the South Loop.
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