Taft freshman academy appears likely for Irving-Oak Park, with guaranteed enrollment for Dunning families
by BRIAN NADIG
The Chicago Public Schools is planning to use a $70 million school being built in the Dunning community as a freshman academy for the overcrowded Taft High School, according to testimony at the March 15 meeting of the Chicago Plan Commission.
Some parents have called for the building being constructed at 4201 N. Oak Park Ave. to serve as a new four-year high school for Dunning, where Steinmetiz Academic Center is the primary neighborhood high school.
However, Chicago Public Schools’ director of school demographics and planning Jimm Dispensa testified that he is “very confident” that the new building will be used for “ninth graders and a small cohort of seventh and eighth graders.” He estimated about 1,000 freshmen and 100 seventh graders and 100 eighth graders.
Plans call for all of Taft’s freshmen to be housed in the new 1,200-seat school along with its Seventh and Eighth Grade Academic Center, which is a gifted program that requires admissions testing and accepts children citywide.
Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th) said that a final decision on whether the building will be used as a freshman academy or a stand-alone four-year high school will be made this fall but that under each scenario, enrollment is guaranteed for Dunning families.
“Irregardless, students at Bridge, Canty, Dever and now all of Smyser will have a seat the (new) school,” Sposato said. “The bottom line is that kids from the Dunning area will be able to go to this school.”
Students at Canty, Bridge and Dever would have a choice of attending Taft or Steinmetz under the plan. Currently Taft is the home high school for most Smyser students, with the others feeding into Schurz High School, but Taft would become an option for all of Smyser’s attendance area students.
Some parents have expressed concern that adding schools to Taft’s feeder list could create new overcrowding concerns at Taft.
To address that concern, the school system has begun restricting the number of students which Taft can enroll from outside its attendance boundaries for the academic center and its U.S. Naval Junior ROTC Program. As part of the plan, the school system is reducing the size of the academic center from about 120 to 90 students in each grade.
“This is actually a Taft annex to relieve overcrowding,” testified Dunning resident Jason Quaglia. He added that the word “Dunning” should be removed from the working title of the project because it is “misleading and creating a lot of confusion in the community,” especially among those hoping for a new stand-alone high school.
It also was reported that a new traffic flow plan for entering and leaving school grounds has been developed but that funds have not been allocated for the proposed change.
At a commission hearing last fall, concerns were raised that exiting traffic would be routed to the north via Normandy Avenue through an industrial complex, from which a traffic signal at Forest Preserve Drive/Montrose Avenue could be reached.
However, area business owners have expressed concern that Normandy is an industrial drive used by large delivery trucks and that mixing school and industrial traffic would not be safe.
Under the new proposal, school traffic would now enter and exit via a driveway that connects to Oak Park Avenue to the west. The initial plan called for the driveway to be used for only eastbound traffic entering the school grounds.
Project officials have estimated the cost of widening the driveway by 10 feet to allow for two-way traffic at $4.5 million, but the funds have not been set aside for the work, according to John Dudlak, who owns a nearby industrial parcel. He said that the estimate seemed excessively high for an approximately 1,200-foot stretch of roadway.
Sposato said that he has not been given a final cost estimate for widening the planned driveway but that efforts are being made to identify funds for the work. Some of the area’s industrial users reportedly have suggested that the city consider using funds from the Read/Dunning Tax Increment Financing District.
The March 15 hearing on the school plan was meant to give commission members an update on the traffic plan. Last fall the commission conditionally approved rezoning the site to accommodate the project.
One of the commission members called for project officials to give another update this spring. The member said that he wants to make sure the traffic plan addresses student safety concerns.
The new school building is scheduled to open by the fall of 2019. After their freshman year, students at the academy would attend classes at Taft’s main campus at 6530 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
In the past 15 years, Taft’s enrollment has more than doubled, from about 1,500 to 3,400.
Sposato said that he expects demand for Taft to increase if the freshman academy opens, given that some parents are not sending their child there because of the overcrowded conditions. “Adding 1,200 seats” to Taft’s capacity would address that concern, he said.
Some Bridge, Canty and Dever graduates are admitted to Taft each year through its international baccalaureate and other programs which accept students from outside Taft’s attendance boundaries.