CPS solution to overcrowding at South Loop Elementary - eliminate gifted kindergarten

By BEN MEYERSON, Chicago Journal, October 5, 2011
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After years of complaints from parents about overcrowding at South Loop Elementary School, Chicago Public Schools officials have come to a solution: cut a class.

Next year, the school is eliminating the kindergarten level of its gifted program, freeing up space that the school says will be used to alleviate overcrowding in the rest of the school.

The gifted program draws talented students to South Loop School from all around the city, as well as funding, but it also eats into the amount of space available to students who live close to the school.

As classroom sizes have ballooned — as high as 36 students in one third-grade class, according to parents — the debate about how to deal with the increasingly cramped space has grown fervent.

In an email to parents sent Sunday, South Loop School Principal Tara Shelton said the school needed to either cut its boundaries or programming, or it needed to add more space. But CPS officials told her they couldn’t expand next year.

“Based on discussions I have had with CPS officials and the Office of Academic Enhancement (which oversees gifted programs), we have determined that it is in the best interest of current SLS students to limit the number of students we have admitted to SLS,” Shelton wrote in the email.

Neither Shelton nor the school’s assistant principal, Timothy Butler, responded to several calls from Chicago Journal as of press time Wednesday.

Under the new plan, South Loop School would keep its gifted program for first- through eighth-grade students. Shelton said she’s also working with CPS to reorganize the school’s two buildings, with kindergarten and first-grade students moved to the school’s branch campus at 1915 S. Federal St. and preschoolers moving from the branch to the main building at 1212 S. Plymouth Court.

CPS spokesman Frank Shuftan said South Loop School also won’t accept students from outside its attendance boundaries for the neighborhood program.

Looking toward the future, Shuftan said the new CPS administration is in the process of a more holistic solution to space problems across the city — including what might be a more permanent solution for South Loop School.

“CPS is in the process of developing a comprehensive portfolio strategy citywide to provide access to quality seats for all students,” Shuftan said. “Once this strategy is finalized, we will have more details about how the South Loop School can help provide quality seats for the neighborhood and the city.”

Left unaddressed, though, is a proposal that’s been floated several times over the last few years — moving some of South Loop School’s classes to the National Teachers Academy building, which sits at 55 W. Cermak Rd. but is underused.

Amy Rome, the National Teachers Academy’s principal, said that at this point, as far as she knew, her school wasn’t a part of the discussions involving South Loop School.

“Our agreement was that NTA is not going to become a part of the process to relieve overcrowding at South Loop, and if at any point NTA is a possibility, then they would bring us in at the planning stages,” Rome said. “Until we’re part of it, we’re just two neighborhood schools coexisting.”

Leslie Recht, schools liaison for Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) said that the alderman’s office is frustrated with the overcrowding at South Loop and the consistent turnover at CPS headquarters that they say has kept anything meaningful from happening to fix the problem.

“We started a process and figured they were going to take South Loop and the National Teachers Academy and look at them together, and so far they haven’t done that,” Recht said. “CPS just let the thing sit, and we kept pushing and pushing for them to do something.”

Recht has dealt with four different CPS CEOs since she came in with Fioretti four years ago, and every schools chief has brought in his own people who reset the process, she said. It’s made it difficult to get anything done, she said.

“And this point, I don’t know what they can do. They’ve backed themselves into a corner, so any kid within the neighborhood boundaries has the right to go there,” Recht said. “For whatever reason, we’ve just been banging our heads against the wall.”

The South Loop Elementary Local School Council will hold its next meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 6:15 p.m. in the main building, 1212 S. Plymouth Court.