DUNNING — Stacey Babich is mulling a long list of possible next steps for her son after he graduates from Canty Elementary School this year. None of them are in her neighborhood.
Having graduated from Steinmetz High School in 1991, she's opted to steer him away from her alma mater, despite living just inside its attendance boundary, she said. Instead, she's reaching for selective-enrollment and magnet schools in the area.
"If those don't come through, we'll start looking at private high schools — or we may move away," Babich said.
But if she stays in the neighborhood long enough for her sixth-grader to graduate, he'll have the option to attend a freshly-built school with a state-of-the-art turf field — and within walking distance from her home.
Babich and other parents had been buoyed by repeated promises that Dunning would get its own high school ever since she moved to the neighborhood in 2001, she said.
That day finally came on Jan. 31, when CPS leaders and Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) closed out decades of rumors and false starts by announcing a plan to build the school in time to accept students for the 2019-20 school year.
"After all this time there was really this feeling like this could really be happening, like we'd really get the chance to build something that our whole community could be invested in," Babich said. "But to find out that it's just going to be a Taft feeder school instead ... it's really not fair that we'd have to send our kids all the way up to Norwood Park."
The school, whose construction is slated to be approved at the next meeting of the Chicago Board of Education later this month, promises to accommodate around 1,300 students. Its boundaries won't be decided until fall 2018, but Sposato has repeatedly assured parents that students who live in Dunning will find open seats there.
The alderman's proposal drew a backlash from parents and students at Steinmetz, many of whom feared the new facility would threaten the Belmont-Cragin school's diversity and drain the school's already dwindling enrollment.
But an opposite protest sprouted up from Dunning residents like Babich and Jason Quaglia, part of a vocal neighborhood "task force" calling for the school to be built as a fully independent four-year high school.
Quaglia warned that opening up even more space for Taft's 3,000-plus students would give it a "monopoly" on the Northwest Side.
"With Taft accepting so many students from outside their boundaries, their overcrowding problem is never going to be solved unless they have fewer schools feeding into it," said Quaglia, who is also a board member for the Dunning Neighborhood Organization. "If you have a new school in line with Steinmetz's enrollment, you could have three fairly equal and competitive schools in the area, instead of just building an annex so Taft can become this big powerhouse with all this money pouring into it."
But for Taft principal Mark Grishaber, the school's skyrocketing enrollment is one of its most precious resources, especially as it's rattled by repeated budget cuts. The principal, plunging head-first into the debate while still recovering from a months-long battle with leukemia, has launched a campaign arguing that a freshmen campus could be the only way to save the programs that make Taft so appealing.
In a presentation to teachers before a Feb. 7 Local School Council meeting, Grishaber called new boundaries for an independent school "the worst outcome of all" possible options, reckoning that such an arrangement would rob Taft of more than 1,100 students, taking nearly $6 million in annual budget dollars with them.
"If you think people are mad now, just try and re-draw those boundaries and tell parents they can't send their kids to Taft anymore," Grishaber said. "If I buy a house here because I want to be in the Taft boundary, and you redistrict to send me somewhere else, I'm not going to be happy."
Plus, launching a new school would mean starting from scratch with sports and afterschool programs, where joining with Taft would mean getting to share in everything from its International Baccalaureate courses to its bowling team, Sposato said.
"If your kid is a great debater or wants to play 50 different sports, you wouldn't necessarily be able to do that at a smaller school that doesn't have all the extracurriculars that Taft does," Sposato said.
Sposato has also argued that Dunning simply doesn't produce enough students to warrant its own high school, pointing to CPS data showing that most parents of Dunning elementary school students, like Babich, opt for selective-enrollment or private high schools instead of their boundary-assigned school.
But Quaglia said a new Dunning high school would change that. He's already partnered with other residents to start crafting a curriculum for a neighborhood school, including a raft of extra programs not even Taft would be able to offer, he said.
"We have so many community partners here in Dunning with resources who want to help build this school," Qauglia said. "But you need that leadership here in the neighborhood, because if we're trying to work with Taft all the way up in Norwood Park, it gets harder to make happen."
For example, the school could mesh with the nearby Wright City College to help students earn college credit before they graduate, he said.
For hundreds of parents, a school built from the bottom up could be the difference between investing in CPS and turning the other way, according to Babich.
"We have some really great, super-involved parents at all our elementary schools, and when it's time for high school they have to look for other options," she said. "If we have a four-year high school, the community has a reason to get involved. They have a reason to stay."