Residents upset about lack of answers about proposed pre-K center in Norwood Park
by BRIAN NADIG
At the Norwood Park School Local School Council meeting on Oct. 8 residents received few answers about a proposed regional pre-kindergarten center that could be built on the school’s campus or a nearby location that the school system would buy or lease.
After a brief update on the project, Chicago Public Schools director of demographics Jimm Dispensa told the crowd of about 120 people, “We’re not answering questions today.”
A few residents quickly left after Dispensa’s comment, with one woman shouting, “This is a disgrace.”
In an Oct. 5 e-mail from the school to the community, it was announced that questions and comments would be recorded and addressed at the next meeting of a committee looking into the proposal. The committee, which includes parents and CPS representatives, is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23, at the school.
In an Oct. 9 e-mail to CPS, council chairwoman Maria Ligammari wrote that the lack of updated information from the school system “has done irreparable harm to establishing a relationship built on trust and transparency” which the LSC, community, parents and CPS were striving to achieve.
“I am deeply disappointed and dissatisfied that CPS did not present a comprehensive report on the proposed early education center at the LSC meeting on Oct. 8, 2019. A commitment to providing answers to basic questions, including supporting data, budget projections and options for the proposed center was communicated by CPS at the LSC meeting on Sept. 10, 2019, and the subsequent school/community (committee) meeting held on Oct. 2, 2019,” Ligammari wrote.
Ligammari also wrote that due to the “failure of CPS, the integral role the LSC has in supporting Norwood Park School, (principal Ryan) Coors, the faculty and staff, has been jeopardized.”
During the meeting Dispensa said that the regional center would consist of eight to 10 classrooms, reportedly at a cost of about $1 million per classroom. He added that the Norwood Park campus is not the only location being considered for the center but that he cannot reveal the other potential sites because the school system could be involved in negotiations to purchase or lease a property.
“There are several other viable locations,” Dispensa said. He added that community input would be “absolutely critical” in the decision-making process and the center’s design. Many residents have said that they would prefer a permanent structure rather than a temporary one consisting of modular units.
Alderman Anthony Napolitano (41st) said that after the Sept. 10 LSC meeting he asked project officials to search for other locations based on the community feedback at the meeting.
“They said, ‘Okay … we’ll start looking,’” Napolitano said. “They have to work their numbers. … They’re going to weigh all options (and) find a location that would work not only for the school system but our community.”
However, Napolitano also cautioned that as a member of the City Council he does not have control over CPS, which is a separate taxing body from the city. “We don’t represent CPS,” he said. “If CPS wants to put it here, CPS can put it here.”
At the meeting residents raised concerns that the construction of a stand-alone building on the campus would detract from the open space character of the neighborhood and that the center would worsen the parking and traffic congestion in the area.
Nearly all of the two-dozen audience members who addressed the council objected to having the center on the Norwood Park campus, and several residents said that each school should have its own pre-k program for families in their area. One resident said that she “liked the idea” of the project but she had concerns about the process which CPS was using to develop the plan.
Currently pre-k enrollment is based on a selection process that takes into account several factors including household income status and proximity, according to one area principal.
Napolitano said that he takes a significant number of phone calls each year from upset parents whose child was not selected for a pre-k program due to insufficient space.
The school system is looking to add more pre-k centers throughout the city so that it can accommodate all 4-year-olds. One center is being targeted for the former Saint Cornelius School, 5252 N. Long Ave., and the school system reportedly has looked at the possibility of using existing classrooms at Wildwood School, 6950 N. Hiawatha Ave.
Area 1 Network chief Julie McGlade said that the school system plans to survey the communities which the Norwood Park regional center would serve. Ebinger, Onahan and Hitch in addition to Norwood Park reportedly would be among the Northwest Side schools served by the center. Some of the schools served by the proposed Saint Cornelius center would include Farnsworth and Beaubien.
A decision on where to locate the Norwood Park area center would have to made by around Thanksgiving if it were to open by the fall of 2020, officials said.