STEM Magnet School proposed for Near West Side

By Kristen Franzen

A plan for a new magnet school on the Near West Side is reigniting debate between supporters of neighborhood schools and those who back Chicago’s plan for expanding specialized education in the city.

In addition to three other magnet schools located on the Near West Side, a proposed new magnet school to be housed in the former Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, 1522 W. Fillmore St., has sparked the interest of parents who live in University Village.

The proposed school would be called STEM Magnet School and would primarily focus on science, technology, engineering and math with a possibility of a foreign language beginning in kindergarten.

The school would be the Near West Side’s fourth magnet school, in addition to Suder Montessori Magnet School, 2022 W. Washington Blvd.; Andrew Jackson Language Academy, 1340 W. Harrison St.; and Galileo Scholastic Academy of Math & Science, 820 S. Carpenter St. The Near West Side would hold the most magnet schools in the Chicago area if the new proposal passes the school board on Jan. 26.

If approved, STEM Magnet will start accepting applications for kindergarten through third grade. The proposed school’s plan is to add a grade level each year following.

Dennis O’Neill, executive director of the University Village Association, said he thinks this is exactly what the community needs.

“We’re very much underserved by Chicago Public Schools in our community,” O’Neill said. “So we are working diligently as a community to provide access to high-quality education and a socioeconomically diverse environment.”

O’Neill said one of the advantages about the community is its central location.

“This is something I whole-heartedly support,” said Alderman Daniel Solis (25th Ward). “This is a win, win, win situation.”

Alderman Robert Fioretti (2nd Ward) said opening STEM Magnet would help the community as a whole but he would like to see CPS put forth supplementary funds for other local schools, such as John M. Smyth Elementary School.

“I am asking CPS, and I consistently contacted CPS for additional resources at another local school,” Fioretti said.

When applying to a magnet school, each student application is looked at independently. A student’s parent or guardian will receive a lottery number. The student’s lottery number will either admit the student to his or her top choice magnet school or be placed

on a waiting list.

However, unlike most magnet schools, where 40 percent of the seats are saved for children in the community with a lottery number and 60 percent are for children citywide, STEM Magnet will have a “no attendance boundary rule.” This means every student in the city will be able to apply.

According to O’Neill, many neighborhood schools provide a difficult learning environment because of all the socioeconomic challenges that come along with the student population.

“Many neighborhood schools are poor, segregated and failing,” O’Neill said. “On the other hand, we have magnet schools that are academically excellent and socioeconomically diverse by design. The system is designed that way.”

Smyth Elementary was given an internal grade of “F” by CPS, although it is a well-resourced school, according to O’Neill. It provides students with a computer lab, green house and music program. It specializes in Mandarin and maintains an international baccalaureate program.

O’Neill said there are two criteria people want in a school and a community.

“We are a university community, so we are a very socioeconomically diverse community already,” O’Neill said. “So, people here would like an academically excellent school for their children, a public education and also want it to be a socioeconomic learning environment. At this moment, this [Smyth] school does not meet those criteria. It is not academically excellent.”

Lou Marolda, a University Village resident who lives down the street from Jefferson Elementary, said he is at odds with STEM Magnet.

“Your children may not get into this school,” Marolda said, as he spoke to the audience at the community meeting held at St. Ignatius College Prep. “The kids here in this neighborhood need a chance. I am, however, in support for opening Jefferson[Elementary], although I would like it to be a neighborhood school so all the neighborhood kids in this community can go there.”

Currently, if a child of the Near West Side community doesn’t get into a magnet school, they are enrolled in Smyth Elementary. Community parents wanted to increase enrollment size at Andrew Jackson Language Academy, but Jackson parents objected and argued it would upset the learning dynamics.

Angela Bryant, a University Village resident who attended the community meeting, said she was in favor of the proposed STEM Magnet but would prefer the school be placed in a farther West Side neighborhood because University Village already provides three magnet schools.

“I am in favor of equity and fairness,” Bryant said. “A STEM school in a West Side community would better serve a [farther] West Side community.”