Pre-K set to open in 2018 at St. Cornelius


A proposed early education center for the Chicago Public Schools system is expected to open next year at the former Saint Cornelius School, 5252 N. Long Ave.

When plans for the center were announced last winter, city officials said that they had not given up hope that it could open this year. However, more time is needed to prepare the building and establish the curriculum.

"The goal for the preschool is the fall of 2018. Participating schools are anticipated to be Beaubien, Farnsworth, Hitch, Prussing and possibly Portage Park and Grey," said Alderman John Arena’s chief of staff Owen Brugh.

The school system and the archdiocese have not finalized a lease arrangement for the project, but an update may be available in a few weeks, according to the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools.

Hitch School principal A.J. Stich said that while he has not seen final plans for the center, some modifications to the classrooms at Saint Cornelius can be expected. He said that sinks are required in pre-kindergarten classrooms because the importance of washing hands is part of the curriculum.

Some parents have expressed concern about having to drop off one child at the center and the older sibling at Hitch, but the educational benefits of a dedicated pre-kindergarten center should outweigh any inconvenience, Stich said.

Teachers at the center will be able to collaborate and discuss improvements to the pre-kindergarten curriculum, Stich said. "The quality of education consequently increases," he said.

Currently Beaubien School, Hitch and Prussing School each use one room for pre-kindergarten, with half-day morning and afternoon sessions. Farnsworth School uses two classrooms for pre-kindergarten.

Arena has said that the center will be one part of a comprehensive plan which is needed to address space utilization issues at schools in the 45th Ward.

School overcrowding concerns have become a key issue in community discussions about plans to increase density in the Jefferson Park area, as several area properties have been rezoned for new apartment complexes.

Despite receiving a primary grades classroom building in 2013, Hitch needs more common area space, Stich said. "I have a cafeteria for 400 children, and I’m serving 600," he said.

Prussing, which was recently approved for a $24 million annex, and Beaubien are two of the most overcrowded elementary schools in the city. More than 300 new apartments are planned for the Beaubien attendance area, although developers argue that the units are geared more for young professionals than families.

Farnsworth is considered operating at capacity but is not considered overcrowded by school system standards for space utilization. While the school’s main building is not intended for current enrollment of 625 students, it houses several classes in a modular unit, and its total space utilization status is listed by the school system as "efficient."

While about 80 percent of Farnsworth’s enrollment comes from its attendance area, the school offers several special needs programs that attract students from other areas, said principal Barbara Ellen Oken.

In other news, the installation of an artificial playing surface and a new track at Hitch should be completed in August.

Hitch also is receiving a second playground, which will be for children age 2 to 5. The current playground is for children age 5 to 12.

Oken said that the design stage for its new playing surface is scheduled to start this fall, with construction projected for next year.

The drainage system for the new fields at Farnsworth and Hitch are designed to help alleviate flooding on school grounds and in the surrounding neighborhoods.