Addition to overcrowded Taft ruled out; freshman campus planned but approval 18 months away
by BRIAN NADIG
Building an addition to the overcrowded Taft High School is not being considered given that land has been set aside for a new high school facility at Irving Park Road and Oak Park Avenue, according to a school system official.
“There’s no desire to put the number of students in this building into a bigger building,” Chicago Public Schools’ director of school demographics and planning Jimm Dispensa said at the Feb. 7 meeting of the Taft High School Local School Council.
Dispensa’s comment was in response to concerns that Taft’s student body would be split between two campuses under a plan to build a freshman academy on former state land in the Read-Dunning development area. Some parents have raised concerns that it would be better to contain the school on one campus, either by building an addition or reducing Taft’s attendance area.
The proposal calls for the new campus to accommodate Taft’s freshmen and Seventh and Eighth Grade Academic Center students, with a projected total enrollment of 1,200, and the existing campus at 6530 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. would house sophomore, juniors and seniors, with a projected enrollment of about 2,700.
Taft’s current enrollment is 3,297, compared to 1,500 about 15 years ago.
Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th) said that changing attendance boundaries would be difficult because it would involve choosing which communities to remove from Taft’s feeder school list. He said that he previously asked council members to suggest which schools should be removed and that he did not get any recommendations.
On the flipside, the school system is looking to expand Taft’s attendance boundaries due to the additional space which the freshman campus would bring to the school.
Plans call for Bridge, Dever and Canty to be added to Taft’s feeder list. Also, part of Smyser School’s attendance area currently feeds into Steinmetz High School, but all of the school would feed into Taft under the plan.
Sposato has requested that students from those four elementary schools also be given the option of attending Steinmetz, which serves most of the Dunning area.
LSC community member Goran Davidovac said that he would like assurances that increasing Taft’s attendance boundaries would not generate a new overcrowding problem in a few years given Taft’s rising popularity among area families. “Can we be assured that we won’t be back to square one in 2022, 2023?” he asked.
Dispensa said that Taft would need to stop enrolling students from outside its attendance boundaries in order to have “a high level of confidence” in the data showing the freshman academy plan would work.
Currently Taft offers three programs which accepts students from outside its attendance area, including about 150 of its 250 academic center students. In addition, about half of its 398 International Baccalaureate Diploma Program students and half of its 287 U.S. Naval Junior ROTC Program students are from outside the area.
Last fall about 50 graduates from Bridge, Dever and Canty were admitted to Taft through the IB and ROTC programs.
Taft principal Mark Grishaber said that it is important that the school maintain the flexibility of enrolling outside students in those programs and that the freshman campus plan would give the school adequate space. “There’s room for the kids,” he said.
Restricting the academic center, which is a gifted program, to local students would hurt Taft’s feeder schools, Grishaber said. “I don’t want to brain drain the elementary schools around here,” he said.
When the academic center opened in the late 1990s, initially there was a limit on the number of students admitted from Taft’s feeder schools due to concerns expressed by the area principals that they would be losing their best seventh- and eighth-graders to Taft.
In the mid-2000s, the ROTC program consisted almost exclusively of non-attendance area students, but that changed in recent years as a significantly higher number of local students are applying for the program, Grishaber said.
Meanwhile, several parents at the LSC meeting advocated for a new four-year high school for the Dunning community instead of a second Taft campus. Others called for the school system to invest more resources into Steinmetz, which is operating below its capacity.
Dispensa said that the freshman campus plan is “a set of ideas” and that approval of a formal plan for the Irving Park-Oak Park site is about 18 months away. He said that construction will start before then but that the building will be designed to accommodate a freshman academy or a four-year high school.
Dispensa plans to attend LSC meetings at schools throughout the Northwest Side to gather more input on the planned facility. He said that the Chicago Board of Education will use “the freshest data” when it decides on the enrollment and curriculum makeup of the new facility.
Dispensa said that he is trying to figure out the appropriate forum to share “30 hours” of enrollment data which show the reasoning behind the freshman campus plan. He said that the data also will ease concerns that the plan would have a negative impact on Steinmetz.
Grishaber said that the freshman campus would allow the school to expand its staff and programming for students while alternative plans would force cutbacks. He said the new campus would include an athletic facility that can be used for practices and homes games.
“Friday night lights at Taft,” Grishaber said.