DUNNING — Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) was caught between dueling constituencies of parents and teachers Monday night as he unveiled a first draft of his plan to build a freshmen campus for Taft High School near the Dunning-Read Conservation Area.
A packed gymnasium at Merrimac Park, 6343 W. Irving Park Road, heard speakers alternate between demands for a larger, independent high school, and questions about why the school is being built at all.
"How on God's green earth can we spend all this money on a new school when Steinmetz [College Prep] and Schurz [High School] are so underenrolled?" said Pauline McFeely, whose child attends Taft. "Instead of perpetuating the problem at Taft, we need to come up with a way to fix the issues at other schools."
The new campus, set for the corner of Irving Park Road and Oak Park Avenue, would accommodate all Taft High School's freshmen in addition to the roughly 250 seventh- and eighth-graders in its academic center, Sposato revealed last week. Accompanied by a multi-use turf field, the campus would be large enough to serve about 1,300 students.
Chicago Public Schools officials announced in December that they would set aside about $75 million for the project from this year's capital improvements budget.
Sposato's announcement was the culmination of more than a decade of clamoring for a high school in Dunning, where most freshmen are sent to either Steinmetz or the severely overcrowded Taft. With 3,297 Taft students attending class in a building meant for 2,184, Taft is by far the city's most congested high school, according to CPS data.
Once it opens, the new school would bring the population at Taft's Norwood Park campus back down near its intended capacity. But a plan to feed three Dunning elementary schools into the freshmen campus would gradually bring Taft's population back up, while further draining Steinmetz's enrollment — along with its funding — parents and students predicted.
"We've lost so many great staff and great programs," said Isaiah Roman, a Steinmetz senior. "We've lost our only librarian. How are you going to give a new school a state-of-the-art library and ignore the fact that we don't even have one we can use?"
A parade of Dunning residents — many of them parents of students at Bridge, Canty and Dever elementary schools, all within walking distance of the new school — said the plan was lacking.
"I'm from Belmont Cragin and I'm sympathetic toward Steinmetz, but I want to know why there's not a full high school serving all these grammar schools," said Frank Saez, whose two sons attend Bridge. "If Taft can serve its area, and Steinmetz can serve its area, why can't we serve ours? Otherwise, Taft is just going to keep getting more crowded."
But since Canty, Dever and Bridge only combine to graduate about 250 students each year, an entire new school "just is not going to happen," Sposato said.
Although the plan calls for students from the three schools to attend their freshman year at the new campus, after which they'd get to choose between Steinmetz and Taft's main building in Norwood Park, the boundaries are "not etched in stone," Sposato said.
That wasn't a good enough answer for Jason Quaglia, a board member of the Dunning Neighborhood Organization.
"What kind of guarantee do we have that this prime land of ours is going to be available to people who live in the neighborhood?" Quaglia said. "If we don't get some guarantees, you're going to face a lot of opposition on this."
CPS officials will drop in on local school council meetings at all the area's schools as they continue to shape the design for the new campus, they said.
It will likely be at least a year before construction begins, officials said, with an opening date set for summer 2019.