by Catherine Guiles
Feb 05, 2008

Voters in a Dearborn Park precinct approved a nonbinding referendum Tuesday to turn the South Loop magnet school into a strictly neighborhood elementary school.

They also narrowly approved a referendum to restrict parking by parents dropping off their children.

According to the Chicago Board of Elections, the school referendum passed by a vote of 269 (55.93 percent) to 212 (44.07 percent). The parking measure passed 246 (51.14 percent) to 235 (48.86 percent).

Supporters said the ballot measures sent a message about a decades-old struggle over local control.

“I don’t even care what the vote is,” said Michael Shapow, a neighbor and spokesman for the Dearborn Park Community Group, which supported the call to end magnet programs and further restrict parking by parents.

“I would hope that the school leadership would look at this and say, ‘We have a problem.’”

However, South Loop parent Beth Aversa said the measure only made the backers look like “bullies.”

“It’s accomplishing nothing,” Aversa said, standing outside the school as she distributed fliers urging a “no” vote. “This is nothing more than them saying, ‘Look who supports us.’”

The referenda – one to eliminate magnet programs and one to restrict parking -involved Precinct 22 of the Second Ward only. Sponsors called for turning the school back into an “autonomous neighborhood small school” and adding signs that ban parking and standing around the school and the adjacent Mary Richardson Jones Park.

Plymouth Court bounds the east side of the school where 13-year resident Kris Bazos asked voters Tuesday to support the measures she petitioned to put on the ballot. She said parents dropping off and picking up their children have long impeded traffic along the narrow streets surrounding the school.

“It creates a significant safety hazard for all,” Bazos said. “It’s a civic right to have access to police, to the fire department, to emergency vehicles.”

Chicago police have looked the other way too often when parents stop in front of the school for longer than the allotted 15 minutes or don’t use their flashers as required, Bazos said.

“It seems a very reasonable request that people obey street signage,” she said. “Even if it were a resident that parked illegally, they should be ticketed also.”

But parent Tanisha Hall, a member of South Loop’s Local School Council, said the fight between the school and the neighborhood is about more than traffic.

“I don’t think the neighbors will be satisfied” by any effort, Hall said, as she picked up her son from kindergarten. “It’ll always be something.”

Feuds involving South Loop go back to when it opened in 1988. At first, parents in Dearborn Park opposed the district’s decision to bus in students from Hilliard Homes, a nearby housing project, while Hilliard parents were upset that their children couldn’t start at the school until third grade.

Last year, residents sued Chicago Public Schools over a fence that was built around the city park next to the school.

Today, South Loop has 463 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. In addition to operating as a neighborhood school, it has a fine arts “cluster” magnet and a regional gifted center, which attract students from around the city.

Aversa said cutting the magnets wouldn’t improve traffic because 65 percent of the students come from the neighborhood, but Shapow questioned that figure.

South Loop is getting too big, he said, which is why he supports moving the magnet programs, perhaps to the National Teachers Academy, one and a quarter miles away.

“[South Loop] was never designed to be a commuter school,” Shapow said. The added distance wouldn’t matter “if you’re driving anyway.”

But Aversa said ending the gifted program could cost the school money.

Hall noted that the school started a “kiss and go” program to minimize long waits by cars.

Principal Tara Shelton didn’t respond to two messages left Tuesday seeking comment.

Despite the long animosity, Shapow said he and his group are willing to have a dialogue with school officials.

Hall, the LSC member, agreed: “We want to work with the community, and we want them to work with us.”

©2001 – 2013 Medill Reports – Chicago, Northwestern University. A publication of the Medill School.