New magnet school proposed for Near West Side

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After a controversial plan to expand a top-tier magnet school failed, CPS officials are making another attempt to satisfy parents in the gentrified Near West Side neighborhood. This time, they are proposing that a new magnet school focused on math, science and technology would be housed in the former Jefferson Elementary School, 1522 W. Fillmore St.

According to a statement released by CPS officials, “Jefferson is located centrally in an area with a strong potential for demand and integration.” A community meeting will be held at 6 p.m. this Tuesday at St. Ignatius College Prep, 1076 W. Roosevelt Rd.

This proposal would give the Near West Side a fourth magnet elementary school (currently Suder Montessori, Jackson Language Academy and Galileo Math & Science Scholastic Academy) , distinguishing it as the only community area with so many magnet schools.

CPS Spokesman Frank Shuftan says the district’s goal is to create choice and equity. The area is a desirable one because it is centrally located and a lot of people come through it, he said. “There is a good potential for strong demand here,” he said.

In magnet schools, 40 percent of the seats are awarded through a lottery reserved for students in the neighborhood; and the rest of the seats are distributed through a citywide lottery. Magnet schools also get extra staff positions for specialty programs.

Parents who live in University Village/Little Italy—the neighborhoods surrounding the University of Illinois-Chicago featuring newly-built and renovated homes and condominiums—are at the center of the push for more options. Currently, if their children don’t get into a magnet or selective enrollment elementary school, they are assigned to Smyth Elementary. 

That, they say, is unacceptable as only 44 percent of students meet state requirements on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.  Parents also say they want to send their children to a diverse school and currently Smyth is 99 percent black.

Originally, parents wanted to expand the high-performing Andrew Jackson Language Academy.  But Jackson parents objected, arguing that to split the school into two campuses would upset the learning dynamics, according to an article from the Chicago Tribune.

Dennis O’Neill, executive director of the University Village Association, says the magnet school at Jefferson is a necessary next step in the community because of the lack of high-quality options available.

“Our community is very underserved by CPS,” said O’Neill.  “We do not have a neighborhood school that people feel meets two criteria: academic excellence, and socioeconomic diverse environment.” 

A new neighborhood school was not a good option because of “boundary issues,” he said. University Village is south of Roosevelt, while Little Italy is to the north of Roosevelt and several blocks west. They are not contiguous so drawing an attendance area would be difficult.

Also, they are separated by a stretch of public housing, next to which is Smyth Elementary. O’Neill says he wouldn’t want to exclude students from the public housing complex and that making it a lottery gives them a chance to apply.

“We want to increase access here…” he said. “They can lottery in, like anybody else.”

The magnet school at Jefferson would have a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concentration, with the possibility of a foreign language focus beginning in kindergarten, said Jeff Rosen, a parent and a member of the Near West Side education committee that helped develop the proposal.