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New Taft Campus May Worsen Segregation, Steinmetz Teachers Say

By Alex Nitkin | January 26, 2017 9:45am
 Surrounded by her students, Steinmetz College Prep English teacher Sharon Schmidt speaks during the public comment period at the CPS Board of Education's monthly meeting.
Surrounded by her students, Steinmetz College Prep English teacher Sharon Schmidt speaks during the public comment period at the CPS Board of Education's monthly meeting.
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DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin

LOOP — Parents and students at the severely overcrowded Taft High School, 6530 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., were elated this week to learn that a new campus will be built for the school's freshmen by 2019.

But not everyone is excited about the plan, as two teachers and 11 students from nearby Steinmetz College Prep, 3030 N. Mobile Ave., told Chicago Public Schools leaders Wednesday.

"How is there money to build a whole new school when we barely have enough money for what we need?" Steinmetz attendance coordinator Renato Roldan asked members of the Board of Education during their monthly public meeting at the CPS Downtown headquarters.

In December, officials earmarked $75 million for the new campus, an addition Taft's parents and teachers had long demanded as a release valve for Taft's packed halls. With nearly 3,300 students in a building built for 2,184, Taft is by far the city's most overcrowded high school.

But Steinmetz is only filled to about 70 percent of its capacity, and declining enrollment has saddled it with the same kinds of budget cuts that have forced teacher layoffs and extracurricular phaseouts across the city.

Worsening the situation, the school's teachers say, is that three elementary schools now inside its boundary — Dever, Canty and Bridge — will send their graduates to Taft's new campus instead of Steinmetz.

"We do not need a new high school when Taft is overcrowded and we're underenrolled," said Sharon Schmidt, an English teacher at Steinmetz. "A middle school, sure, but not a high school."

Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th), who's spent at least two years laboring to get the new school built, maintains that its impact on Steinmetz's enrollment will be negligible. He pointed to CPS data showing that last year only about 18 percent of Dever, Canty and Bridge graduates — 46 students in all — went on to Steinmetz. The rest enrolled in parochial or selective-enrollment schools or nabbed a spot at Taft.

"When you're talking about a school like Steinmetz with more than 1,300 kids, I think that's a very small percentage," Sposato said. "I don't think you can show me any proof that this is going to wreck the school."

But what the school stands to lose above all else, Schmidt said, is its diversity.

Steinmetz's student body is 73 percent Hispanic and 14 percent black, with 91 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch, according to CPS data. Dever, Canty and Bridge are all in Dunning, a predominantly white and middle-class neighborhood. Diverting their students to Taft, a school that's nearly half white in a citywide district with 90 percent minority students, would only reinforce racial and economic segregation in a city already beset by inequality, Schmidt said.

"We're proud of our diversity, and we want to celebrate it, not sabotage it," Schmidt said. "It's a good thing for students to be able to learn around kids who are from different backgrounds. It helps all of them."

That includes Ryan Allibone, a senior in Schmidt's journalism class, who said he's benefited from being part of a pluralist school population.

"If your school's very diverse, you can meet a wide range of people," said Allibone, who accompanied Schmidt and Roldan at the board meeting. "You can learn from the experiences they've had throughout their lives, and it can help make you into a more well-rounded and worldly person."

Allibone lives in Dunning, and he attended Bridge Elementary before moving on to Steinmetz. He had heard about "a lot of stigma" around Steinmetz before he attended, but once he started classes, it melted away, he said.

"You can see how diverse we are today, and none of us are bad kids," Allibone said. "We all do our work. We do our academics and extracurriculars, and we're trying to remove that stigma."

Still, parents like Lydia Hlibchuk, whose daughter attends kindergarten at Canty Elementary, didn't hide their relief when they learned their kids were bound for Taft.

"When you think of Steinmetz, the connotation is always drugs, gangs and violence," Hlibchuk said. "I hear a lot of stories about how their borders extend into gang-infested areas. So for parents who don't want their kids to go down the wrong path, they avoid it at all costs."

Those stories don't describe the school where Schmidt works, she said. Data shows a sharp drop-off in disciplinary incidents in recent years, and the school boasted an 86 percent attendance rate during the last school year, up from 77 percent in 2009-10.

And while Taft beats out Steinmetz's test scores and school quality rating, the latter has "the same means to serve academically advantaged students" with a full offering of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, Schmidt said.

But as long as Taft's relative allure keeps it "bursting at the seams" with students it can't accommodate, building it a new campus is the only viable option, Sposato said.

"I have no doubt that Steinmetz is a great school — their principal is awesome, and every time I've been there the kids have always been well-behaved," Sposato said. "But they're going to have to sell themselves better, or something, because the fact is that people don't want to send their kids there, and now we're dealing with the consequences of that."