Taft freshman campus plan unveiled at meeting; Taft could gain more feeder schools
by BRIAN NADIG
A proposed freshman campus at Irving Park Road and Oak Park Avenue for Taft High School would give the school world-class athletic facilities and allow it to maintain its strong curriculum and sports programming, according to Taft principal Mark Grishaber.
“This is basically the next chapter in Taft,” Grishaber said in an interview after a Jan. 31 community meeting which Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th) held on the project.
The proposal is in response to overcrowded conditions at Taft, where enrollment has increased from 1,500 to 3,300 in the past 15 years. “We’re currently at 150 percent of capacity,” Taft Local School Council chairwoman Lisa Schwieger said at the meeting.
Schwieger said that she would not be surprised if Taft’s enrollment hit 3,600 in the next few years due to improved academic reputation and that it could use overcrowding relief this fall instead of waiting for the projected 2019 opening of the freshman campus.
Some LSC members have criticized the freshman campus plan because it would increase Taft’s feeder elementary school list from 17 to 20, adding to its overall enrollment. “You’re right back at being overcrowded,” LSC parent member Joe McFeely said.
Under the current proposal Bridge, Dever and Canty would be added to Taft’s feeder list, and all of those students living in Smyser attendance area would become eligible for Taft, as currently half feed into Taft and half into Steinmetz High School.
Sposato said that he has requested that those schools feed into Taft because they are located near the Dunning site, and children in those neighborhoods should have the opportunity to attend schools near their home. Sposato also has asked that students from those four schools have the option of choosing Steinmetz.
The freshman campus, whose capacity would be about 1,350, would serve all of Taft’s freshmen and Seventh and Eighth Grade Academic Center students. The main Taft campus at 6530 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. would serve sophomores, juniors and seniors, with the ability to accommodate between 2,700 and 3,000 students, according to Sposato.
Without the freshman campus, Taft’s boundaries could be reduced and that scenario would leave the school with fewer teachers, making it difficult to offer a wide range of Advanced Placement classes, a full set of sports programs and other educational opportunities, Grishaber said. “This gives us flexibility,” he said. “We’re saving 40 to 50 teachers.”
The freshman campus also would give Taft a much-needed improvement in its sports facilities, Grishaber said. There are tentative plans for the school and Chicago Park District to share athletic facilities which would be built next to the school.
Schwieger said that the council only recently learned of the freshman campus plan and is hoping to solicit more input on the project from parents. A school system official was scheduled to address the council at its meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7.
Some LSC members have said that they would prefer Taft to remain a one-campus school but that it would take a creative solution to figure out how to add additional gymnasium, lunchroom and classroom space to the existing school building.
Overall the proposal drew mixed reaction from a crowd of about 500 people at the Merrimac Park fieldhouse, 6343 W. Irving Park Road. Several residents called for a four-year high school which would serve primarily the Dunning community to be built on the site, while others expressed concern that the plan could drain resources and students away from Steinmetz, which is operating under capacity.
Alderman Gilbert Villegas (36th) said that he was upset by recent postings on social media criticizing Steinmetz, where he once served on its local school council. He said that community members should be celebrating the many good programs at the school and working together to make it a stronger neighborhood high school.
“At one time Taft had a bad reputation, they eliminated it,” Villegas said.
Taft’s freshman campus would be built on land in the Read-Dunning Tax Increment Financing District which was set aside several years ago for a school and a park.