The Chicago Planning Commission approved the Noble Charter School Network's zoning request Thursday, paving the way for a new high school to be built across the street from Prosser Career Academy in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood.
The proposal to develop the new charter school at 5357 W. Grand Ave., the current site of a shuttered lumberyard, now heads to the city council's zoning committee. The proposed high school would still need final approval from the school district.
Planning commission members, who are appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, approved the zoning change for the proposed ITW David Speer Academy charter school despite opposition from Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th) and Northwest Side residents who said the new school is a risky investment for the community and bad urban planning.
Those with Communities United for Quality Education (CUQE) and Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools (CSOSOS) say the Northwest Side community does not need any more high school seats, as four public high schools are already located within a 1.5-mile radius of the proposed site. Those surrounding schools include Edwin G. Foreman High School, Kelvyn Park High School, North-Grand High School and Prosser.
On top of that, Census data cited in the Chicago Public Schools' 10-year Educational Facilities Master Plan shows there will be a 1.8 percent decrease in the number of children aged zero to 19 in the area and a 7 percent decrease of students aged 15 to 19 in the Belmont Cragin region by 2016.
"There's going to be even less high school kids in this area," Martin Ritter with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) told the commissioners. "Why is there a need to build a high school that will serve supposed overcrowding? ... None of the local high schools are overcrowded. There is not current overcrowding at these local high schools. This is bad urban planning. Bad density choices. This is not right for the community."
According to CPS’ funding formula for new charter schools, Noble is estimated to receive $1.3 million in startup and operations funds from CPS in its first year, the education organizers with CUQE and CSOSOS said.
“Why is CPS giving less to my school and willing to give more to charter schools,” Karla Cervantes, a Prosser senior and CSOSOS leader, said before the meeting. “My school lost $1.2 million this year, but CPS is willing to invest $1.3 million of my parents and other Chicago taxpayer money to get this new Noble Charter School up and running. We are sick and tired of CPS valuing charter schools over our schools."
Noble spokeswoman Angela Montagna, however, said she was not sure how the education activists arrived at the $1.3 million figure.
Construction of the $20 million public, non-selective enrollment charter high school would be privately-funded by Illinois Tool Works and Nobel, she said, adding that no tax increment financing (TIF) funds or tax dollars would be used for the effort.
"Of course there’s startup costs to a school," Montagna said to Progress Illinois. "Part of that is being funded by the private investment. It’s not just construction. It includes startup costs."
Noble says the proposed project would create more than 100 construction jobs and 50 to 60 full-time school positions once the academy is at full capacity. The proposed campus would educate 900 students in grades nine through 12 and would be Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) focused.
Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose ward would house the proposed school, is a supporter of the project. In a statement, Mitts said Prosser, 2148 N. Long Ave., is nearly overcrowded. Prosser, a selective enrollment school, has a current waiting list of more than 3,000 students, she said
"We appreciate Prosser, but it is not an option we can build upon," Mitts' statement reads. "As an elected official with a strategic agenda for making the 37th Ward as strong and vital as possible, I believe that one of the most important and proven strategies for expanding education opportunity in our public schools is simple. We must first and foremost promote a variety of universally high-quality public school options, and the proposed Noble STEM school is one such opportunity. I have surveyed my community on this proposed school at community and other meetings, and have received strong support from nearly 3,000 individuals and families for this school."
According to CUQE and CSOSOS' calculation, by the time the charter school opens to all four grade levels, Chicago taxpayers would have paid over $8 million in operating costs. Those are resources that neighborhood public schools, not charters, desperately need, organizers said.
The existing public high schools in the Belmont Cragin area are already underresourced and have seen their collective school budgets cut by $6.3 million so far this school year, the activists said. The students and parents argued that the new charter high school may also lure students away from area public schools, meaning the neighborhood schools could lose even more dollars in the future due to decreased enrollment.
"I cannot understand the insanity of building a school across the street from a high school that’s already existing," said Prosser parent Sue Rosendale-Matthews. "Our budget got cut [by] $1.2 million. You're giving $1.3 million [in] startup costs? I'm not getting that. I may not be the best person in math, but that doesn't make sense to me."
Due to the $1.2 million in budget cuts at Prosser, some classes are not using textbooks because the school cannot afford them for all the students, said Angel Sosa, a Prosser sophomore. Those affiliated with Prosser said they have been asking CPS to build an extension at the school to accommodate more students looking to get in, but the district has reportedly rejected the idea, citing budget constraints.
"Why is there no money for my school, but there's enough money to have a whole new charter school in front of my school in an area where there is already four CPS high schools with a 1.5-mile radius?" Sosa asked the commissioners.
Quijna Walton, a student at Steinmetz College Prep, added that her Spanish class has almost 50 kids in one classroom due to the budget cuts.
Here's more from Walton, as well as Ald. Sposato, who spoke at a press conference before the meeting:
As it stands, there are already 5,900 elementary, middle and high school students within .25 miles of the proposed Nobel site, Ritter said. Factoring in the students from the proposed Nobel school would bring the total close to 7,000, he said, adding that "We don't have the public transportation to take on these kids."
"High school kids are high school kids. They run into each other on the streets. Noble knows this," Ritter added. "To have two schools looking at each other and walking out at the same time or within an hour of each other is not a good idea. This is not good planning. You are planning commission members. This is not good urban planning."
Prosser will be in Sposato's ward once the the new ward map takes effect in 2015. He echoed that it's not a good idea to have two competing high schools right across from one another.
"We keep preaching safety, safety, safety, kids first in this city, but yet we're building two public high schools across the street from each other," Sposato stressed.
Montagna pushed back on the argument that the new school would increase violence in the community.
"I think it’s really disappointing that our expectation is that you put students by each other and it's just going to be violent," she said. "I think that’s an adult problem, not a kid problem."
Noble currently has two schools that are sharing a building with a high school, Montagna noted. And seven of Noble's 14 schools are also within two blocks of another school.
"We've had zero major incidents that they suggest are going to be happening all the time," she said.