Taft teachers raise concerns over overcrowded classrooms





by BRIAN NADIG

Teachers at Taft High School are expressing concern about their overcrowded classrooms and are worried that there is no guarantee of a solution to the problem in the near future.

"We’re not sure you really understand the extent to which we are (overcrowded)," physical education teacher Shereena Lewis told the Taft School Local School Council at its Nov. 14 meeting. "We’re at wit’s end. We just need solutions."

Several physical education teachers reported that some gym classes have up to 50 students and that the lack of proper facilities has led to an increase in "wellness walking" classes in which gym students walk outside or in the hallways. Another teacher said that studies have shown that student achievement is negatively affected by just having a few students over the standard class limit of 28 students for the academic core classes.

Taft’s current enrollment of about 3,370 students is more than double from 15 years ago. As a Level 1 school, Taft is considered one of the top neighborhood high schools in the city, and it recently missed the top ranking of Level 1+ by 0.187 points.

The school system is considering whether a new school which is being built at Irving Park Road and Oak Park Avenue should be used as a freshman campus for Taft in order to address the overcrowding issue, but another plan calls for the building to become a new 4-year high school for the Dunning area. City officials have said that using the new building as an extension of Taft appears to be the most likely scenario but that a final decision will not be announced until the fall of 2018.

Physical education teacher Brett Nishibayashi said that there needs to be a plan to address the school’s overcrowding next year given that the new building will not be available until the fall of 2019.

Several teachers also said that options should be considered in the event that the new building is not used for Taft, recommending the placement of modular units outside of the school or reducing its attendance boundaries.

Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th) has said that one of the problems with changing attendance boundaries is that parents will likely object if their elementary school is taken off Taft’s feeder list given the school’s wide range of academic and extracurricular programs. Several other area high schools, including Steinmetz and Schurz, are underutilized and have a lower performance rating than Taft.

Under the freshman campus plan, families at Bridge, Canty and Dever schools, which feed into Steinmetz, also would have the option of sending their children to Taft. Those families should have access to the new school given their proximity to it, Sposato said.

Several Taft LSC members said that the council has been seeking relief for the school’s overcrowding for years but that the only option on the table appears to be the proposed freshman campus. Members said that the school system has ruled out expanding the current campus with an addition or other changes.

LSC community member Goran Davidovac said that he wants Taft’s overcrowding problems to be addressed with long-term solutions. "I don’t want Taft where we are now in 2023," he said.

Taft principal Mark Grishaber said that staggered start times could be implemented next year due to the overcrowding but that he hopes to avoid that scenario.

A later dismissal time for some students would make it difficult to coordinate athletic practices and hamper students who have a job or have to watch their younger sibling, Grishaber said. "I have 1,800 athletes in this building," he said.

More teachers would be hired if the school could afford to do so, but the $5,100 which each high school is allocated per student is not sufficient, and Taft received no funds for the 43 late-enrolling students because the school system cuts off allocations after the 10th day of classes, Grishaber said. "That’s $220,000 we did not get," he said.

"It’s not overcrowding. It’s under-funding," Grishaber said. "Nobody wants a 34th, 35th, 36th child in a class, but we had no choice."

A faculty advisory committee to the LSC has recommended that funds be used to pay for substitutes who would allow teachers with overcrowded classes to take one day a month to catch up on grading and planning. It also is asking that teachers with overcrowded classes receive an increase in salary, similar to the funds being paid to faculty members who have taken on a sixth class, but funding for the salary increase is not available.

Also at the meeting, Grishaber reported that an agreement with an Irish football league, which wants to install a new athletic field at the school, could be finalized in a couple of weeks. The league would use the field on Sundays.

It also was reported that more than 1,500 people attended a recent open house at the school and that Taft has partnered with Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa, Calif., in order to help assist a school in a community which has been affected a recent natural disaster.

The Nov. 14 LSC meeting marked the first meeting for Grishaber since returning to Taft after a successful bone marrow transplant. He was diagnosed last year with leukemia.

The next council meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 12.