Updated: May 22
When Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans last fall for a brand new school on the far Northwest Side, he said it would serve seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-grade students who otherwise would be crammed into Taft High School — the most overcrowded public high school in the city.
But now, after construction has already begun, Chicago Public Schools won’t say who the school will serve. The school district says it is still evaluating feedback.
Meanwhile, the mystery surrounding this school is roiling three separate school communities near the construction site, each one wondering who will benefit — and who might be hurt — when the final call is made. It’s a decision tangled up in questions about race and the city’s priorities.
If CPS CEO Janice Jackson opts for relieving overcrowding at Taft, home to the city’s largest white high student population, she’ll inflame critics who think it will further entrench segregation and undermine two struggling, primarily Latino neighborhood high schools nearby, Steinmetz and Schurz.
Others also wonder why the city is building a new $70 million high school at all. The city’s existing schools need $1.6 billion in critical repairs and many struggle to enroll enough students to maintain robust curricular and after-school offerings.
Ald. Nick Sposato (38th Ward) said these concerns are out of step with the reality on the Northwest Side. He is a strong supporter of the mayor’s original plans for a satellite campus for Taft. He said many families already spurn the two other Northwest Side high schools, choosing either private schools or selective public schools. Though Steinmetz and Schurz continue to have healthy student populations, both have seen their enrollment decline precipitously over the last several years.
Providing more space for Taft should be a priority, he said. Sposato thinks the school should be rewarded for turning around over the past decade and attracting lots of students, he said. He said it is good for CPS — a school district with total declining enrollment — to have another attractive high school option.
“You are helping the whole cause overall,” he said.
New school in works for more than a decade
Emanuel put aside $70 million for the project as part of a $800 million capital bond. The bond is being paid for with a $45 annual property tax levy approved in 2015.
The new school is under construction in the Dunning neighborhood, on the corner of Oak Park Avenue and Irving Park Road. It’s a massive, 800,000 square-foot piece of property.
It was once the site of the Cook County Poor Farm and Insane Asylum, which reportedly had a mass, unmarked grave. Construction equipment is poised to do the careful work of displacing dead bodies, should they find any.
Officials and residents say there has been talk of a new school at that site for more than a decade. Emanuel referenced this in his fall announcement, saying it was in the works when he was a congressman serving the area in the mid-2000s, but there was no money to make it happen.
Some Dunning residents say the area’s previous alderman promised them a comprehensive high school. Some even say they bought homes in the area based on this promise.
But Ed Bannon, who serves on the Dever local school council in Dunning, said some are happy for the opportunity to send their children to Taft. Dunning students are assigned to Steinmetz now, but if the new school becomes a Taft satellite, the boundary will expand and include them.
Also, it doesn’t make much sense to build a new stand-alone high school, he said.
Back when those promises were made, all of the high schools with attendance boundaries within a four mile radius were at capacity or overcrowded.
Changing race and class dynamics
Today, all those neighborhood high schools — Steinmetz and Schurz, as well as Kelvyn Park and Foreman — are all considered underenrolled by CPS.
The construction site for the new school sits within Steinmetz’s attendance boundary and would draw away some students. Steinmetz could easily serve 1,600 students. But, since 2004, its lost more than half of its population. It now serves 1,165 students.
Vanessa Valentin, chairwoman of the local school council, said budget cuts resulting from student population loss have been heartbreaking. Chicago Public Schools uses student-based budgeting, which means schools get a fixed amount for each student enrolled.
“It is hard to see yourself cutting things that we knew ultimately our students needed,” she said.
Valentin, who is Puerto Rican, notes that many local parents who graduated from Steinmetz are not choosing to send their children there now. Race and class dynamics seem to be play a role in the population loss, she said.
Less than 9 percent of Steinmetz’s students today are white, compared to a third in 2000. Most of the other students are Latino. About 14 percent are black.
Under the mayor’s plan, the only remaining majority white areas in Steinmetz’s current attendance boundary would be assigned to Taft.
“It makes me sad to think we are racially dividing ourselves,” Valentin said. “That is how I see it. Because we have African-American students and Latino students being the majority of our school, is that why the community doesn’t want to support Steinmetz?”
Bannon, who is white, said people in his community have steered away from Steinmetz because they feel it is unsafe. Steinmetz is in Belmont-Cragin, a mostly Latino area south of Dunning, which is predominately white.
He finds some irony in their concerns, considering that Belmont-Cragin is so close — less than two miles from where they live. Bannon works for Ald. John Arena in the nearby 45th ward, but said he is speaking as a community resident and not as a spokesman for the alderman. Taft is in the 41st ward.
Bannon has two children in sixth grade and said he would consider sending them to Steinmetz one day. But he also said he will be happy to have another option, once the new school is built.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.
In an earlier version of this story, WBEZ neglected to mention that Ed Bannon works for Ald. John Arena.