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New Dunning School Defended To Skeptical Taft, Steinmetz Parents

By Alex Nitkin | February 10, 2017 5:46am | Updated on February 10, 2017 10:45am
 Left: Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) speaks at a Wednesday meeting of the Steinmetz Local School Council. Right: Taft Local School Council member Goran Davidovac speaks at a Tuesday meeting.
Left: Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) speaks at a Wednesday meeting of the Steinmetz Local School Council. Right: Taft Local School Council member Goran Davidovac speaks at a Tuesday meeting.
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DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin

NORWOOD PARK — If a plan is already committed to paper, does that make it a foregone conclusion?

That was the question gnawing at hundreds of Northwest Side parents this week as they badgered officials for details on a new school they feared might underestimate Taft High School's overcrowding or drain Steinmetz College Prep High School's already dwindling resources.

With $75 million already set aside for the new school — funding shored up from the historic citywide property tax hike passed in 2015 — CPS is all but guaranteed to build the campus at the intersection of Irving Park Road and Oak Park Avenue by 2019.

Neighbors last week aired mixed reactions to the most recent proposal — crafted by Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) and championed by Taft principal Mark Grishaber — to build the school as a satellite campus for Taft's freshmen and seventh- and eighth-grade academic center.

But CPS officials are still a long way from deciding which students the school will serve, according to James Dispensa, the director of demographics and planning for Chicago Public Schools.

"The proposal won't be up for any actual decision for another year-and-a-half, so we have between now and then to develop the proposal and study the data that underlies it," Dispensa told members of the Taft Local School Council Tuesday. But construction will continue apace during that time, because "it would make no sense to wait to design the building until after you've decided what the ultimate boundaries are," he added.

CPS has been pining to build a school in the Read-Dunning area since at least 2003, Dispensa said, citing a longstanding "need for new high school capacity on the Northwest Side." A law passed in 2010 gave CPS a 10-year window to build on the land before control reverts back to the state.

But the inevitable shifting of boundaries to accommodate the new campus has injected a bitter debate into the process, with parents and teachers from Humboldt Park to O'Hare fighting to keep their schools from being left in the cold.

Parents of students at Canty, Dever and Bridge Elementary Schools, all near the site of the proposed Dunning campus, have demanded access to the new building, despite currently living inside the Steinmetz boundary. Sposato's proposal would give them their wish, but that might be counterproductive to stemming overcrowding at Taft, some parents argue.

"If we're adding more elementary schools and expanding our boundaries, how does that ensure that we won't fall back into this problem of overcrowding again?" Goran Davidovac, a member of Taft's council, said at Tuesday's meeting. "Because what I foresee is an increased number of students with all this new space, and that just brings us back to square one."

Steinmetz teachers and parents, meanwhile, have repeatedly warned that diverting the Dunning grade schools from their pool would stifle the high school's diversity and squeeze its already shrinking population.

But CPS' preference for "school choice" over boundary enforcement in recent years dried up Steinmetz's reservoir of Dunning students long before the new campus was rolled out, Dispensa said.

Out of 289 eighth-graders enrolled in Canty, Dever and Bridge in fall 2015, just 45 attended Steinmetz a year later, according to CPS data.

Upward of 5,000 high school-age children live inside Steinmetz's boundaries, which trace the city's western limit and stretch as far south as North Avenue, Dispensa said. Just over 1,300 students now attend the school.

"Boundaries aren't deciding where students are going to school — parents decide that," Dispensa said during a Wednesday meeting of Steinmetz's Local School Council. "Boundary is not destiny ... so I would encourage us to think about what it takes to strengthen Steinmetz's attraction."

Multiple speakers at Wednesday's meeting circled back to the goal of making the 98-year-old Belmont-Cragin school a more appealing option. Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) plainly told parents and teachers, "We need to get better at marketing."

With an International Baccalaureate program, college dual-enrollment courses and surging attendance rates, Steinmetz is aggressively trying to shake off its decades-old reputation for crime and delinquency.

But outreach is easier said than done for a school being forced to notch its belt tighter every year, according to senior Isaac Roman — especially as Steinmetz leaders catch their breath from a $150,000 budget cut handed down this week.

"With all these budget cuts, we're going to lose our programs," Roman said. "We lose our programs, and we're going to lose more students. So we're doing as much marketing as we can, but we can't do it without money."

And no matter how long the new Dunning campus has been on the district's wish list, the plan to lavish tens of millions on a gleaming facility with a state-of-the-art turf field has hit the Steinmetz community like a slap in the face, Roman added.

"We have all these budget cuts, and we're working really hard to compensate for that," Roman said. "Yet we're still here struggling, hearing about a brand new school that's being built with $75 million. That money is coming from our budget."