CITY HALL — Dozens of parents and faculty members pleaded with 37th Ward Ald. Emma Mitts Tuesday to approve plans for ITW David Speer Academy in Belmont Cragin to expand into a vacant building next door.
Principal Tom Mulder said he has been besieged by parents who want to send their children to the high school operated by the Noble Network of Charter Schools at 5321 W. Grand Ave.
"Time is running out," Mulder said, adding that the school must submit its application for a zoning change to city officials no later than Wednesday in order to have it approved in time for the vacant building to be purchased and renovated in time for the 2017-18 school year. "These kids need a chance to attend a high-quality school."
Mitts announced her support for the charter school expansion at a meeting in her ward in January, prompting Mulder to offer 300 students a spot in the school. The $7 million project will be paid for with private donations, said Cody Rogers, a spokesman for Noble.
However, Mitts dropped her support in March, Mulder said.
A spokesperson for Mitts did not respond to questions from DNAinfo about the proposed expansion of the charter school.
Rogers said Noble officials do not understand why Mitts dropped her support for the expansion. Because the expansion needs a zoning change, it requires the support of the alderman.
"We have only been offered excuses," Rogers said. "Not one solid reason."
In February, Ald. Milly Santiago (31st) and Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) held a rally outside a Chicago Board of Education to object to the proposed expansion, which they said will take badly needed resources away from the area's neighborhood schools.
Speer Academy has been open for three years, and has fewer students than permitted by the Board of Education. However, the current school building can not accommodate any more students, Mulder said.
Approximately 1,200 students applied for 150 spots in the freshman class that started in fall of 2015. Demand has only grown since then, with nearly 2,000 students applying for 150 spots in the freshman class that started in the fall of 2016, Mulder said. Students were selected by lottery, officials said.
Bobby McCorvey said he sent his oldest son to Speer Academy after researching schools near his home in Austin and found very limited options among several low-performing schools.
"These schools have been failing us for generations," McCorvey said, adding that he hopes to send his youngest son to Speer Academy.
The letter signed by Santiago and Villegas and several community groups urged officials to reject the expansion of Speer because "there is capacity at all of our local high schools to meet the needs of our children."
Speer Academy is across the street from Prosser Career Academy, which is rated Level One-Plus, the district's highest rating. Prosser's building has an ideal capacity of 1,200 students, and the school has an enrollment of 1,346 — a slight drop from 2015.
Steinmetz College Prep High School, whose boundaries include parts of Belmont Cragin, is only at 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.