At three o’clock on a recent Friday afternoon, the playground at Jane Addams Elementary School exploded with action.
Pent-up energy from the day and week came pouring out of the small building and stuffy trailers that make up the East Side school as sprinting students, visiting alumni, and chatting families gathered in the open lot surrounding Addams’ small jungle gym.
The grandmother of an Addams student pointed at the trailers. “This used to be a playground,” she said. “When they built this school, they should have thought ahead.” One of her daughters, a 2005 graduate of the school, nodded beside her.
At Addams as well as at Gallistel Language Academy, a magnet elementary school four blocks north at 104th Street and Ewing Avenue, trailers have been erected to serve as satellite classrooms, an initiative to relieve the overcrowded schools.
Addams is a single-floor building meant for 480 students, but about 866 students are currently enrolled, putting it at 180 percent capacity. And Gallistel, at 193 percent capacity, is the fifth-most crowded school in the city. The school had to place many of its 1,300 students in rented spaces nearby, including the top floor of St. Francis de Sales High School, a two-block walk from the main campus. Students must go back and forth between buildings throughout the day.
The most recent school report cards, published in September, place Gallistel on probation, a designation that is in part due to the limited resources available for students there. The mother of a sixth grader at Gallistel said that her son’s teacher did not allow students to bring textbooks home for homework because they didn’t have enough copies to risk the books not being returned.
As the only two elementary schools in the East Side, a sliver of land that runs between the Calumet River and the Indiana state line, Addams and Gallistel have been overcrowded since the nineties. On September 15, however, Mayor Emanuel held a brief press conference at Gallistel to announce that the city would build a new school five blocks east, at 104th Street and Indianapolis Avenue.
To the parents, children, and teachers assembled there, he announced, “Since the early nineties, people have been talking about adding a new school. And we’ve been deferring and deferring. Well, the days of deferring are over.”
The site of the new school—a cul-de-sac at the end of tree-lined 104th Street—is empty, though a few years ago it held a gas station. A single sidewalk separates the fallen fence of the lot from roaring Indianapolis Avenue, the highway that divides the East Side from the industrial tip of Indiana; to the east, the smoke stacks of a power plant can be seen through the smog of the Chicago Skyway.
The city purchased the land in 2009 from relatives of former 10th Ward Alderman Edward Vrdolyak. Known as “Fast Eddie,” Vrdolyak had been a longtime powerbroker in the 10th Ward, which contains all of the East Side, until he was sentenced to ten months in federal prison in 2011 for arranging to profit illegally from a Gold Coast real estate deal.
As the conviction was only the most recent in a long string of charges and complaints against Vrdolyak—the seventy-six-year-old has been censured multiple times for misconduct as a lawyer, and in 1960 was briefly suspected of attempted murder—some community members were suspicious of the city’s purchase.
Suspicions were only fueled by environmental concerns surrounding the property. In addition to the air pollution from the Skyway, underground gasoline storage tanks remain from the lot’s years as a gas station. Andrew Mason, a spokesperson for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, has confirmed that as recently as July 2011, “soil samples showed a small, but still significant reading of benzene” coming from one leaking 5,000-gallon tank buried at the site.
Benzene, a carcinogen found in gasoline, can contaminate both underground water wells and the air. State law requires that the contamination be cleaned up before the school is built, and Mason says that the city has hired an environmental consultant to begin the remediation process. Once the tanks are removed and the land is deemed clean by the Illinois EPA, a “No Further Remediation” letter will be issued, and construction can commence.
Speaking on the phone last week, 10th Ward Alderman John Pope called many of the controversies that have sprung up around the project “non-issues,” brought up during the 2011 mayoral and aldermanic elections as “political footballs” to complicate a project that was necessary for the East Side.
Alderman Pope dismissed Vrdolyak’s connection to the site. “I don’t care who holds the property,” Pope said. “[People are just] trying to stir things up.” As for the site’s polluted past, he pointed out that tainted land is not uncommon in Chicago.
“We’ve been at this for probably ten years,” said Pope, who has been alderman of the ward since 1999. Getting a new school in the area has been “one of my highest priorities,” he said. He and CPS expect construction to begin in 2014.
The new school on the East Side is not the only project underway to address overcrowding in Chicago’s public schools.
CPS published a Request for Proposals in August to kick off the process of contracting new charter school operators to ease overcrowded schools. A list of priority communities—including Midway, McKinley Park, Little Village, and Ashburn—are slated for new charter schools; the East Side is not on the list.
Rather than building a new school, however, some parents of Gallistel and Addams students have suggested simply expanding the existing schools. But both Pope and a spokesperson at the mayor’s office ruled this idea out as more costly than building a new school.
“That much density doesn’t work,” Pope said. “That model does not fit anything.”
Both the Gallistel and Addams buildings were built in the early twentieth century, and Pope declared making certain improvements to such old structures “physically impossible.” CPS has already shelled out millions of dollars to rent the overflow spaces for Gallistel, making the use of these spaces difficult to sustain. CPS’s $665 million deficit raises the stakes.
Many of the roadblocks in the story of this new school, Pope said, were financial. Clearing the land to begin work on the new school required an initial investment of $7 to $8 million dollars, and the available money necessary to continue the project has come and gone.
Estimates for the project as a whole differ. City spokesperson Rachel Kruer stated that the project will cost approximately $35 million, much of it coming from state funds; Alderman Pope, on the other hand, said that it could cost up to $65 million.
Pope attested that he worked to establish a TIF district in the ward to raise money for the project in recent years, but it “was not robust enough to be the answer.”
With state funding now in place, Pope insists that a new school is the best solution to the East Side’s overcrowding problem. “The state has come up with the money, and I think it makes sense.”
All of this, though—the moral, financial, and environmental concerns, the back and forth between policymakers, the decisions about what “makes sense”—is not manifested back on the crowded playground at Addams Elementary.
The prevailing response among parents was that they had either heard nothing about the new school or had only heard vague rumors. A mother at Addams who, like many others, spoke mostly in Spanish, said that she had heard rumors of a new school to relieve Addams, but rumors only. “I’d like a paper telling us what is happening,” she said as her daughter ran up to her, ready to head home.
I mentioned the new school to an eighth grader near the jungle gym and his face lit up. “Oh yeah,” he said, “I heard it was gonna be a Catholic school.”
When I spoke to Assistant Principal Daniel Alvarez, he shook his head and fidgeted with his keys, saying that the administrators of the school don’t know anything more than the parents.
Cipriano, who didn’t give his last name, has owned Jalpa Auto Repair on 103rd Street and Indianapolis for twenty years. He said he had not been approached about the school that will share a parking lot with back wall of his garage. “The ground was shaking” when the old structures were demolished on the site, he said. “We just hear it is going to open, but we don’t know when.”
This uncertainty is all too familiar a feeling in the playgrounds and classrooms of Chicago’s schools. In the recent school closings, community meetings were organized in all of the areas at risk of being affected by the district’s actions. Meetings were meant to be forums for community input, but a two-minute time limit on individual comments, among other limitations, caused many parents, teachers, and students to feel that their input was not taken into account when the final decisions were made.
One Gallistel mother put her feelings bluntly. “When you’re poor and don’t speak English, what you say don’t matter.”
Alderman Pope says that the city will hold a similar round of community meetings to discuss the options for parents leading up to the opening of the new school. Some aren’t optimistic that these meetings, like those held before the closures, will have an effect.
Sue Garza, a counselor at Addams and an area vice president for the Chicago Teachers Union, reported that attendance at Addams’ Local School Council meeting last week was higher than usual. It was parent, teacher, and student input that made the meeting go on for almost five hours. “They’re worried about the boundaries, about who’s going to be cut out of Jane Addams,” she said.
They’re also worried about what will happen to the existing schools. Though Kruer says “the city and CPS are one hundred percent committed to upgrades to the current buildings,” Alderman Pope found it necessary to clarify.
“I cannot honestly, rightfully say that the old school will get all the bells and whistles [that the new school will],” he said. “We are looking for capital dollars to improve Gallistel, but there are still additional needs.”
That prospect outrages many community members, Garza included. “That’s basically saying Gallistel is a lost cause—so what happens to them?”
“We basically have been left in the dark,” Garza says. “Two months ago the TIF money was taken away and it wasn’t going to happen, and two days before the press conference it wasn’t going to happen.”
Garza also expressed concerns for teachers at Addams and Gallistel, grounding her skepticism about what CPS officials are saying now in the events of the past year.
When more than 2,000 CPS teachers and staff lost their jobs this summer, Addams’ lost seven teachers, leaving the school with three empty classrooms and forcing the students that would fill those classrooms into other, more crowded classrooms. Addams’ kindergarten classes have about thirty-four students each, despite CPS’s stated commitment to capping classes at twenty-eight.
Having mentioned this, Garza then did some quick math. If the new school relieves Addams of 400 students and Gallistel of 700, the schools would lose nine and twenty teaching positions, respectively. “The union wants to guarantee that those teachers follow the students,” she said.
She also expressed concern that this effort to relieve overcrowding may set off a vicious cycle of overcrowded classes being relieved and then being deemed underutilized. “We don’t want to be told we’re underutilized.” Nothing yet suggests that there is a great chance of this—in fact, CPS has placed a five-year moratorium on school closings. Considering the tide of closings in the past year, however, it’s no surprise that such a possibility is on educators’ minds.
In the coming months, CPS will work with the Public Building Commission to design a three-story school building with room for 1,200 students. The design is not yet complete, but will include “physical and acoustical barriers…to create more separation and buffer the noise” from Indianapolis Avenue, and entrances on the west side of the building to avoid the street’s congestion.
Groundbreaking will not begin until the Illinois EPA gives its clearance, but if construction does begin in 2014, the school’s doors are expected to open in fall 2016. According to Alderman Pope, as the school’s opening approaches, “the [attendance] boundaries will be drawn based on most current demographic information to ensure that they’re as beneficial as possible,” meaning that they will be drawn to ensure the target number of students are transitioned to the new school.
Garza, who lives a block away from Addams, suggested making the new school a middle school for the sixth through eighth grades, a move that would, she said, relieve overcrowding in the elementary schools and make the transition that comes with having a new school in the neighborhood more straightforward. Students could graduate from Addams and Gallistel, move on to this hypothetical new middle school, and then attend nearby George Washington High School or a magnet school elsewhere in the city. It would not disrupt students’ learning in the same way that changing schools mid-elementary school might.
When asked if she had presented this idea to CPS, Garza’s response was one of exasperation. “Nothing’s been presented formally because no one knows who to present it to,” she said.
Garza is doubtful that the many processes that will be undertaken to improve Chicago’s schools will be, as CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett puts it, “an open conversation with the community.”
Garza conceded, however, that the city is organizing forums for community input. “Barbara Byrd-Bennett is forming community meetings for hearings about overcrowding,” she said. “So we can wait to hear what they have to say.”
On the playground at Addams, though, parents are skeptical. Still standing next to her daughter, the grandmother pointed again at the school. “I really don’t know what their plan is,” she said. “I just think they don’t think ahead.”