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Teachers: Proposed Northwest Side School Threatens Student Diversity

Updated 9:02 p.m.

Northwest Side Alderman Nick Sposato got an earful Tuesday evening from community members and parents, most of them unhappy with his proposal to build a new Taft High School campus to serve 7th, 8th and 9th graders. 

Sposato's proposal, which is not finalized, has generated controversy because some teachers say it threatens diversity at nearby schools. Others think the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel attended the first part of the packed meeting at Merrimac Park before he ducked out to attend a previously planned dinner.

After he left, many parents argued that the $75 million price tag for the new Taft campus could be better used elsewhere. Some pointed out that Chicago schools are in the midst of a budget crisis.

“How on God’s green earth can we spend all of this money for a new school when Steinmetz and Schurz are so underutilized,” Pauline McFeelyn said, referring to two other Northwest Side high schools. 

The new Taft campus would be built in the Dunning neighborhood. Steinmetz is the current Dunning neighborhood high school.

Students living in the boundaries of four elementary schools -- Canty, Dever, Bridge, and Smyser -- would get a chance to go to the new school, Sposato said. The student bodies at those schools are about half white, half Latino and currently feed into Steinmetz High School, a predominantly Latino neighborhood school.

“They want to take our white students and take them over to Taft, which is a predominately white school,” said Sharon Schmidt, a teacher at Steinmetz. “What will that do to us?”

Taft’s student body is 47 percent white, the highest of any high school in Chicago Public Schools, according to the most recent demographic data from CPS. Steinmetz has 8 percent white students.

It’s not clear exactly how or even if the official Taft and Steinmetz boundaries will be redrawn. Currently, Taft is about 1,000 students over its ideal capacity, while Steinmetz is considered efficiently used but has room for another 400 to 600 students, according to the most recent available data from CPS.

A WBEZ analysis of new school construction found several cases where city and district officials were exacerbating segregation by race and class by building new schools and additions when a nearby under-enrolled school could have alleviated overcrowding.

In Chicago, more than 70 percent of public high school students do not go to their assigned neighborhood high school, district data show. Many travel to selective or specialty schools. Others choose public charters or neighborhood schools that are not in their immediate area.

For example, Sposato said only 47 students from Canty, Dever, Bridge, and Smyser chose to go to Steinmetz this fall.  

“You get a lot of kids that get into selective enrollment from these schools, you get a lot of kids that go to private schools, you got a lot of kids that move at this point,” he told WBEZ. “I don’t mean to offend anybody, but I know what people are telling me and what they want.”

He doesn’t believe the new International Baccalaureate middle school and freshman campus will hurt Steinmetz.

“It’s up to them to say, ‘Hey, we’re the better choice. We’re Steinmetz. We want you to come here,’” Sposato said.

Renato Roldan, a social studies teacher at Steinmetz, questioned why the district would spend money on a new school when school budgets could be cut again in February. The district is currently staring down a $215 million budget hole created when Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed state money earmarked for teacher pensions.

“If we’re trying to make our money match what we need, why is it that we have money to build a whole new school, but we barely have money for the stuff we have now?” Roldan said during a Chicago Board of Education meeting on Jan. 25.

The budget for new school construction is separate from the district’s operating budget, and any construction borrowing will now be paid back with proceeds from the city’s recent property tax hike, according to district officials. The new tax levy was created to have a steady stream of revenue available to fix the school district’s aging buildings and build new schools when necessary.

In response to Roldan, school board president Frank Clark said, “These are the things we just simply have to balance.”

Becky Vevea and Sarah Karp are education reporters for WBEZ. You can follow them @WBEZeducation.

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