By Ronald Evans and Star staff *
The Steinmetz community has come together to demand fairness. Alderman Gilbert Villegas (36), students, teachers, parents, Local School Council (LSC) members and community members are protesting a $75 million CPS building proposal that would hurt Steinmetz.
The proposal calls for taking away three elementary feeder schools – Dever, Bridge and Canty – from the Steinmetz boundaries as part of a “Taft South” grades 7-9 school to be built at Oak Park Ave. and Irving Park Rd. Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38) has presented the proposal as a solution to overcrowding at Taft High School, 6530 West Bryn Mawr.
The Dec. 1, 2016, CPS Supplemental Capital Budget slates $75 million for “New Northwest Middle Grades School Construction.”
Teachers Sharon Schmidt and Renato Roldan testified at the Jan. 25 Board of Education meeting that the school would decrease Steinmetz’ enrollment. See cpsboe.org for the video, beginning at 2:12.
They questioned how the Board could afford to build a new school it does not need; Steinmetz and other neighborhood area high schools are under-enrolled.
“When we barely have enough money to pay our light bill, why are we buying a new Corvette?” Mr. Roldan said.
Ms. Schmidt said the plan would divert white students from Steinmetz, a school that currently serves 75 percent Hispanic students, 14 percent Black, 9 percent White and 2 percent Asian.
“We want to celebrate diversity, not sabotage it,” she said.
Katie M. Ellis, Deputy Chief of Staff for the Board, followed up with Ms. Schmidt in a phone conversation and email exchange on Jan. 27.
“The Board certainly heard your concerns and multiple Board members asked for more information on this issue,” Ms. Ellis wrote. “In general, they are very concerned with matters of race and equity, and your report that this move would create less equity at Steinmetz was of concern to them. Please note that the Board would have to vote on any change in attendance boundaries, so they will certainly have to weigh in on this issue.”
After DNAinfo and WBEZ reported their remarks, and statements by senior Ryan Allibone, many more Steinmetz community members spoke out against the proposal at three additional meetings held in the next two weeks.
Mr. Sposato announced his proposal to the wider public on Jan. 31 at a community meeting attended by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
When he spoke a week later at the Taft LSC meeting on Feb. 7, Mr. Sposato said the mayor was in favor of the plan: “I’ve got the mayor’s ear,” he said, explaining that he and Mayor Emanuel have talked about the proposal for months. Mr. Sposato also said he has been in regular talks with Alderman Anthony Napolitano (41), whose ward includes Taft.
Alderman Villegas said he was “not happy” at the Feb. 8 Steinmetz LSC meeting, where CPS was represented by James Dispensa, manager in the Dept. of Operations. Mr. Villegas said that he had been “left out of the conversation” of a proposal that would dramatically decrease Steinmetz’ enrollment. Currently, about 160 students who went to Dever, Canty and Bridge attend Steinmetz.
Mr. Sposato, Mr. Napolitano and Mr. Emanuel did not contact Principal Stephen Ngo or Alderman Villegas while creating the proposal.
“I went to the [Jan. 31] meeting to find out what the hell was going on,” Mr. Villegas said.
Mr. Villegas said CPS has disinvested in the 36th Ward that includes Steinmetz and Prosser High School, both which could use “dollars and infrastructure work.” The plan to award the 38th Ward a $75 million building “gives me pause,” he said.
For several years, some residents who have not wanted to send their students to Steinmetz have lobbied for a Dunning neighborhood high school. Sposato’s proposal is an attempt to appease these constituents by taking away the Dunning feeder schools from Steinmetz, and using Taft’s overcrowding problem to help justify a new school.
Critics of the plan, including Mr. Villegas, have said that Taft’s overcrowding problem was created by choice. According to numbers provided by Taft principal Mark Girshaber at the Feb. 7 LSC meeting, 13 percent of the students live outside the Taft boundaries.
“Why did CPS allow Taft to accept so many kids?” Mr. Villegas asked. “CPS did a horrible job with overcrowding and creating this situation.”
Mr. Villegas said that Steinmetz is a great neighborhood school that hasn’t done a good job marketing itself. He called on the parents and community members in the audience to be positive: “I challenge you: Help us make Steinmetz a better school.”
The proposal to build a new school in a white neighborhood, to alleviate overcrowding of a majority white school, is typical of Chicago. A July 7, 2016, WBEZ report, “How Chicago School Construction Furthers Race and Class Segregation,” shows the pattern. The beginning of the report by Sara Karp and Becky Vevea follows:
Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago Public Schools has spent millions on brand new schools and expensive additions, even in places where neighboring schools have plenty of space for extra students. This new construction is disproportionately going to schools that serve the white, middle class, sometimes ignoring opportunities to create more diverse schools.
What’s more, Emanuel plans to keep doing this, using revenue from a record property tax hike passed last year, documents obtained by WBEZ show.
Emanuel justifies this spending because the schools are overflowing with students and are short on space.
But there’s been little effort during his tenure to try to get these white, middle- and upper-middle-class students to attend one of the more than 300 Chicago schools that are deemed underused, even when those schools are nearby.
Most of the district’s underused schools serve poor, black and Latino students.
The result is that those under enrolled schools are kept racially and economically isolated and that’s not only expensive, it’s bad for children, says Richard Kahlenberg, an expert on economic integration who works for the bipartisan think tank The Century Foundation.
“We know that in trying to raise academic achievement, providing an economically integrated environment for students is far more powerful than spending extra resources in high poverty schools,” he adds.
Over the past six years, under Emanuel, the school district has spent $320 million on new school construction and is planning to spend another $330 million.
A WBEZ analysis of the $650 million in new school construction shows $475 million or 73 percent of all money went to schools where white students make up more than a quarter of the student body. That’s in a school system in which only 12 percent of Chicago’s schools have more than 25 percent white students.
The WBEZ report includes many examples, including the situation with Taft:
Another one of the mayor’s ideas would be to add a $50 million junior high through high school on the Northwest Side that would likely go toward relieving crowding at Taft High School. Taft is half white and 50 percent low income. Yet, many of the high schools around it are seeing dwindling enrollment and could comfortably serve hundreds more students.
Dan Zimmerman, who resigned his post as principal of Foreman High School this Spring, says he has suggested to officials that they should move Taft’s boundaries and route more students to Foreman. With Foreman struggling to attract students, he doesn’t understand the hesitance.
* Jade Aguilar, Ryan Allibone, Lexi Rosch and Star adviser Sharon Schmidt contributed to this piece.