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South Loop Schools Face Overcrowding Challenge

William Jones College Preparatory
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The new Jones College Preparatory High School building will add 300 seats to the Chicago Public School district, but what about the kids who won’t be sitting in those chairs?

“Our current capacity is 800. I’ve got about 850, so we’re crowded,” said Joseph Powers, principal at Jones College Prep, located at 606 S. State St.

Currently under construction, the new building at 646 S. State St. will be able to house 1200 students. The selective enrollment capacity will go up to 900 in the new building and 300 additional seats will be added for a career technical education sector.

“We ask that these 300 seats be set aside specially for Second Ward residents,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd Ward).

He is hoping that these spots will only be available for lottery in the South Loop area, but his request is still in queue with CPS. Fioretti believes that these seats will encourage the growth of the surrounding vicinity. With no neighborhood high school, the Second Ward is in need of more space for students.

“Often, when South Loop families find their children getting to high school age, they move or relocate,” said Powers.

He, better than anyone, knows the desperate need for more CPS seats. The building, which currently houses the 850 Jones College Prep students, was never intended for school usage. It was once a commercial space, so when converted in 1998 for the opening of  the school, it lacked the necessary amenities for a traditional school. These included things such as a library, gymnasium, natatorium and adequate classroom space. Thirteen years later, all are still nonexistent.

“We’ll have what’s known as a neighborhood component,” said Powers.

This component will allow for surrounding residents of the Second Ward to use facilities within the school, such as the gym and natatorium.

The new  Jones College Prep is largely paid for by the city’s tax increment financing funds, known as TIF. These funds were allotted to this project largely because it will contain the neighborhood-use component. On April 13th, City Council approved adjustments in the Second Ward’s TIF funds to help with the school’s construction.

According to Erin Lavin Cabonargi, executive director of the Public Building Commission of Chicago, the estimated cost of construction for the school is $85 million.The new building will stand 8 stories tall.

But what about those students who don’t get accepted? Where will they go to school?

Jones College Prep is one of nine selective enrollment high schools in the Chicago area. Selective enrollment high schools serve academically accelerated students through a difficult curriculum. The selection process for these advanced schools is extremely competitive. Each year, thousands of applications go out and only a few hundred are accepted per school.

“Room for more students in local schools makes for a better neighborhood,” said Mark Selleck, a parent of a hopeful incoming freshman at Jones College Prep.

His daughter made the first round of cuts, but they’re still waiting to see if she can actually attended the school next year. They are hopeful because of her high test scores, however they know their chances are slim because they reside in what is known as a “fourth tier neighborhood.” When it comes to selective enrollment, neighborhoods of potential students are separated based on income level in that area.

CPS has long been working to relieve overcrowding in their schools. Currently, there are seven multi-track schools in Chicago. These schools are open year round and rotate students in order to accommodate everyone. Yet still, the overcrowding issue remains.

One has to examine the issues of fairness when it comes to selective enrollment in public high schools. With a 100 percent graduation rate and a 100 percent college acceptance rate, Jones College Prep is one to be envied. Newsweek named the school as one of “America’s Best High Schools” for four consecutive years, and they rank among the top ten Illinois public high schools.

Part of admission is based on the entrance exam, but even if a student aces the exam, it doesn’t mean there is a seat waiting.
CPS educates 409,279 students in 675 schools. They are the nation’s third largest school district. Overcrowding is not only happening in the South Loop schools, but in all areas of Chicago.

South Loop Elementary, located at 1212 S. Plymouth Court, is facing the overcrowding challenge head on. They have neighborhood seats as well as a gifted program for children. The boundary for neighborhood students stretches from Wacker Drive to 18th street. Enrollment has gone up consistently for South Loop Elementary since 2005. Housing only 348 students back in 2005, they now have over 700 students attending.

Tara Shelton, principal at South Loop Elementary, said in a recent local school council meeting that the school may have to compensate for the extra students in ways such as splitting rooms or turning the teachers lounge into a classroom. Enrollment continues to increase, and CPS still has not offered a solution.

It has not been decided as to what will be done with the older Jones College Prep building. Powers said there is a lot of discussion going on between CPS and the city, but nothing he is directly a part of. There is talk of the building being used to relieve pressure on South Loop Elementary.

Powers hopes the building will be used for educational purposes, whether that will be for the new elementary school or an after-school center.

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