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South Loop School council reverses itself on potential upper-grade move

12/23/2009 10:00 PM


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South Loop School
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South Loop School’s Local School Council voted Monday to support maintaining the school’s current structure until the 2011-12 school year, a decision that didn’t attract the support of South Loop principal Tara Shelton.

Monday’s vote reverses a resolution the council passed unanimously last week, following the second of two meetings where parents digested Chicago Public Schools’ idea of moving South Loop’s sixth through eighth grades to the National Teachers Academy building at 55 W. Cermak.

That resolution recommended CPS move South Loop’s sixth through eighth grades to NTA and open a new high school there filled, in part, by current South Loop eighth graders starting the next school year.

CPS floated the move because South Loop is running out of space in its main building at 1212 S. Plymouth and in its branch at 1915 S. Federal. The school is attracting an increasing number of students from the surrounding neighborhood. South Loop also enrolls students from across the city through a gifted program. The National Teachers Academy has space for hundreds of students in its facility, according to CPS, having lost students after demolition of most of the Harold Ickes Homes, a nearby public housing development.

The school council’s new and presumably final recommendation to CPS, which carries no binding force, lists two priorities. The school council’s first priority is asking CPS to move the sixth through eighth grades to NTA in 2011, in conjunction with opening a new high school there, starting with a ninth grade.

The second priority for the council affirms moving the sixth through eighth graders to NTA next fall, with the ninth grade arriving in 2011.

CPS chief executive Ron Huberman will ultimately make the call about the move, a decision that could come early in 2010.

Huberman was unavailable for comment Tuesday. A CPS spokesman sent a statement via e-mail that said only, “We continue to review the issue but have not yet reached a decision.”

Various constituencies within South Loop have weighed in on the debate over the last three weeks. Despite the jarring impact of the possible move, parents at South Loop appear accommodated to some kind of shift to NTA — the debate largely centers on when such a move should happen.

Multiple parents of students in South Loop’s lower grades — whose children would see more space open in South Loop’s main building — have argued in favor of moving the upper grades.

Opinions among parents aren’t monolithic, however. Monday’s meeting featured a parent of a seventh grader who said she had no problem with moving her child to the teachers academy building.

But many parents were firm in supporting more time for both the South Loop and NTA communities to make the transition, and the school council’s prioritized recommendation ultimately reflected that sentiment.

“Everybody is saying we have to do this, we have to look long term. I guess I feel like we need to look long term, then. And that means looking beyond next year,” said Jacqueline Toepfer, a parent member of the school council.

South Loop principal Tara Shelton and John Jacoby, the parent of a seventh grader at South Loop and a longtime member of the council, voted against the priority list.

“The best idea at the moment is just to go on and start moving the middle school,” Shelton said at the meeting. Once the decision is made, the planning starts and the move can be successfully pulled off, she told parents.

In a Dec. 10 e-mail blast, Shelton had argued for keeping South Loop’s current structure through the 2010-2011 school year. Shelton declined to comment after the meeting Monday, and could not be reached subsequently.

Jacoby criticized the council’s new approach, arguing that South Loop won’t have more leverage on CPS than it does right now. If CPS is going to disrupt current upper-grade students, Jacoby said in an interview Tuesday, it should also provide “a carrot” for them and their parents — the new high school starting next year.

The ground could always shift later, Jacoby said, pointing to the looming municipal campaigns as a wild card.

“We don’t know if Huberman will be the head of CPS in 2011. We don’t know if Daley is going to be running for re-election,” Jacoby said. “It’s unpredictable. That’s why it’s imperative the ninth grade start next year.”

South Loop School’s current neighborhood high school is Wendell Phillips, 244 E. Pershing Road, but many parents at the school are focused on getting their kids into one of CPS’s selective-enrollment high schools.

At Monday’s meeting, CPS administrator Jennifer Cheatham downplayed the idea that CPS could have a ninth grade ready for South Loop students by next fall, saying creating a brand-new high school would take more time than was now available. Cheatham said CPS was committed to the project for 2011.

Jacoby rejected that idea, maintaining that planning a curriculum and hiring staff for a new ninth grade was indeed possible by next fall.

The school council rejected motions Monday that would have suspended enrollment in South Loop’s gifted kindergarten for one year and said no to eliminating one pre-kindergarten classroom.

Both might have created additional space in South Loop School’s current facilities had they been passed, and ultimately implemented. The space crunch in South Loop’s current buildings isn’t expected to let up anytime soon.

One group that hasn’t been approached formally by CPS are the administrators, teachers and parents of children at the National Teachers Academy.

“My families have not been given voice in this conversation,” NTA principal Amy Rome told the South Loop school council Monday. “Nor I have had any direct conversations with CPS.”

Rome described families at her school as eager to fill up the building. She said she and Shelton would be able to work out a space-sharing plan if CPS ratified that approach.

But two separate schools with different levels of resources in the same building would be unacceptable, Rome said.

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By Mary Ann Manley
Posted: 01/02/2010 9:29 AM

How does an organization make a plan for the good of all when half the participants are left out of the conversation? I have followed this series of articles and have been struck each time that the members of the NTA community have not been engaged in the planning of the future of NTA. As a former employee of CPS who worked at NTA, I am saddened that a school that has become a force in the lives of the children and the community is having decisions made about their future without their input.