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In Compromise, Skinner West Will Be Expanded, Brown Becomes A STEM School

By Stephanie Lulay | July 6, 2016 10:40pm | Updated on July 6, 2016 10:41pm
 Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) talks to reporters after the Skinner West Elementary expansion was announced Wednesday night.
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) talks to reporters after the Skinner West Elementary expansion was announced Wednesday night.
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dnainfo/Stephanie Lulay

NEAR WEST SIDE — It's official — the city will expand overcrowded Skinner West Elementary School in the West Loop. 

In a public meeting where reporters were banned, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) and key city leaders announced expansion plans at the school Wednesday night. The building expansion, which will be added to the rear of the existing building at West Monroe and South Throop streets, will add about 15 classrooms to Skinner West, Burnett said.

If all goes well, the expansion will open in 1 1/2 years and construction will not impact the Skinner's school year or activities at Skinner Park, the Alderman said. 

In a meeting light on details, parents said city leaders did not reveal how the expansion would be paid for or how much it would cost. Burnett said it would likely not be funded through Tax Increment Financing dollars and could in part be funded by the city's new Neighborhood Opportunity Fund program. 

"Frankly, I don't care as long as it's funded," he said. 

Part selective-enrollment school, part neighborhood school, Skinner West is bursting at the seams, parents report. Class sizes have swelled to 40 students in some cases, according to Skinner's Local School Council. 

In recent years, Skinner's LSC 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. 

Skinner West leaders also moved classes into science labs and cut a tuition-based preschool program for 3-year-olds and a preschool program for children with autism to allow more space.  

After the meeting, Skinner parent Audrey Oching, whose daughter is a third grader in the classical program at Skinner, said that parents were concerned that the school's classical program would be phased out as overcrowding continued. 

"My daughter was reading when she was four. I didn't want to send her anywhere that wasn't going to give her that challenge," said Oching, who lives in Austin. "I am very excited to hear the school will be expanded." 

The building expansion, which will be added to the rear of the existing building at West Monroe and South Throop streets, will add about 15 classrooms to Skinner West. [dnainfo/Stephanie Lulay]

Brown becomes STEM school in compromise

Top city leaders also announced plans to make William H. Brown Elementary a STEM school on the Near West Side Wednesday night. 

Under new plans at Brown, the school will focus on a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics curriculum, add teachers and improve the school building, Burnett confirmed. In total, $10 million will be invested to make Brown a STEM school. 

Last week, DNAinfo Chicago reported that a Skinner West expansion could be in the works. But Burnett said at the time that he wouldn't sign off until a plan was in place to provide other benefits for West Side CPS schools in his ward.

"I wouldn't have felt justified [expanding Skinner] if I couldn't do anything for Brown," Burnett said. "We can't just take care of folks who have high income, we have to take care of folks who have low income." 

The move to expand Skinner comes seven years after the school was rebuilt with the help of TIF funding to add a neighborhood component and three years after the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 Chicago schools, including many on the West Side. 

After the Henry Horner Homes were torn down, population decreased at Brown, and at one point, some Brown teachers were teaching "split level" classes — two grades in one classroom. 

Burnett hopes improving Brown — and expanding Skinner West — will improve both schools. 

"I'm fortunate to have an affluent area. I'm also fortunate to be able to leverage the affluent areas to help the non-affluent areas in our ward," Burnett said. "It's almost like Robin Hood, but no stealing. It's leveraging. We're leveraging the wealthy communities to help the non-wealthy communities."

West Loop's 'No. 1 Need' 

In addition to the school's main location at 1260 W. Adams St., Skinner West also operates a satellite campus at West Jackson Boulevard and South Aberdeen Street.

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. 

The school district most recently received 4,857 applications for 46 available classical program seats at Skinner West, according to CPS officials.

Armando Chacon, a Skinner LSC member and real estate agent, said earlier this month that a Skinner expansion was the neighborhood's "No. 1 need." 

More families are expected to move into the red-hot West Loop area, too, said Chacon, who also serves as president of the West Central Association. Hundreds of new family-sized condo units are expected in the next two years alone, with more being approved.  

Last month, the Chicago Board of Education bought a vacant building in order to expand South Loop Elementary School in the South Loop. 

Overcrowded Skinner West Elementary School in the West Loop will be expanded, officials announced Wednesday night. [dnainfo/Stephanie Lulay]

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