LINCOLN SQUARE — The Waters Elementary community doesn’t want to look a $24 million gift horse in the mouth. But a Chicago Public Schools’ plan to construct an annex in the footprint of the school’s beloved garden — the beating heart of Waters’ nationally recognized ecology program — has staff, parents and students in the unusual position of protesting the very addition they’ve spent years lobbying to attain.
An added twist to the controversy: Waters’ need for an annex in the first place can be attributed, at least in part, to the school’s eco-friendly reputation, which has resulted in a growth spurt — enrollment is up 86 percent since 2007.
“This is why people are buying into this neighborhood,” said Nicole Kerstetter, a Waters parent. “We bought our house before we had kids. We were always about Waters.”
The annex was announced in July as part of the district’s 2019 capital plan, and since then little information has been made public. No renderings have been shared, no meetings have been held and no input has been solicited from the community.
Radio silence changed on Tuesday. That’s when an email sent from the Waters Garden team with the subject heading “Stop the Drilling” hit people’s inboxes. The note informed parents and neighbors that CPS seemed to have landed on the garden as the ideal location for the annex.
Machinery would be arriving Wednesday morning to drill holes — roughly 8 inches wide and 25 feet deep — at various points in the garden in order to determine the soil’s load-bearing capacity, presumably for the foundation of the planned annex.
“From what I gather, there would be a lot of destruction to the property. I don’t know what kind of equipment’s coming, but it sounds like a gigantic Tonka truck,” said Principal Titia Kipp, speaking at Waters’ monthly Local School Council meeting, coincidentally scheduled for Tuesday evening.
With an assist from Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), a staunch supporter of the garden, Kipp was able to wring a temporary cease and desist from CPS and the Public Building Commission, at least until all parties have a chance to discuss the location of the annex in full detail. A tentative meeting is scheduled for Friday, Kipp said.
“CPS is continuing to engage the Waters community to develop a path forward that allows us to expand educational opportunities while preserving existing school and neighborhood priorities,” Emily Bolton, CPS spokeswoman, said in a statement. “CPS has temporarily suspended site preparations and environmental studies while this conversation continues.”
Though the reprieve comes as a relief, the Waters community has been shaken and remains on edge.
“It’s our culture, it’s our identity, this is our curriculum,” Kerstetter said of the garden. “I am appalled there’s been zero communication. Not being informed about these huge decisions, it’s very upsetting.”
The specter of a 2008 construction nightmare, in which the garden was damaged despite promises to the contrary, has Waters girding for battle despite the temporary truce. Some folks are crafting petitions and others have vowed to chain themselves to the garden fence should machinery launch an assault.
“We’re going to have to be really, really vigilant,” said garden manager Julie Peterson. “We know what happened last time. They came with bulldozers and they destroyed parts of the garden.”
More Than A Garden
It should be explained that, in the context of Waters, “garden” is a bit of a misnomer.
Waters’ garden, indeed its entire campus, is unique not just within CPS but nationally.
“Waters is a Green Ribbon School, recognized by the White House, because of that garden and that ecology program,” Pawar said.
Since the early ’90s, Waters students and staff, along with neighborhood residents, have transformed a once-barren city block of near unbroken asphalt into an acclaimed urban oasis.
In place of pavement, classroom gardens and compost piles sprang up. Bioswales were created to drain stormwater. Raised beds for vegetables and flowers were built and tended to by neighbors.
Almost all of the surface area not occupied by the school building itself has now been converted into green space, with teachers, neighbors and students picking up crowbars and sledgehammers themselves to tear up pavement and reclaim nature.
Today, more than 130 native species of plants and all manner of organisms are thriving in the garden. Among the most precious are a group of ancient bur oaks, which tests have determined to be 300 years old.
Stewardship of the earth is woven into the school’s very DNA. Ecology has become so ingrained among Waters’ staff, students and parents, members of the school’s community fundraise annually to retain the program, even in the face of CPS budget cuts.
“We have children of our children here,” said Pete Leki, head of Waters’ ecology program for nearly 30 years. “There’s a lot of cultural memory.”
At a hastily arranged rally Wednesday morning, Leki looked on as some of his youngest charges led a march through the endangered garden, weaving among flower beds and stately oaks, chanting: “What do we want? Trees! When do we want them? Forever!”
“Maybe whoever is making these decisions hasn’t been here,” Leki said. “I think they have no idea how we will fight to protect it. This is a thing that should be lifted up, not torn down.”
If Not There, Where?
The current stalemate leaves the Waters community in a quandary. Twenty-four million dollars doesn’t magically fall from the sky every day. The fear is: Fight too hard for the garden and the annex could be lost.
Though Waters, 4540 N. Campbell Ave., technically is listed as “efficient” in terms of space utilization by CPS, the district’s formula hadn’t accounted for students receiving instruction in hallways or constraints like a common area serving as a teachers lounge/conference room/bilingual education classroom/office space, according to Erica Smith, Waters parent and chairwoman of the Local School Council.
In a statement Smith presented during a budget hearing last summer and shared with Block Club Chicago, she noted Waters’ growth had strained resources to the extent the school had to shut down its preschool program despite high demand.
At one point, according to Pawar, a plan was even floated to move Waters’ seventh- and eighth-graders to Amundsen High School, an idea that was quickly nixed.
So if not the garden, whither the annex?
“There are going to be losses no matter where they put it,” said Greg Foster-Rice, Waters parent and secretary of the LSC.
One of those losses could be the school’s parking lot, the last patch of asphalt on campus.
Pawar, who is not running for reelection due to a self-imposed two-term limit, said he’s willing to take the “beating” and recommend the parking lot as the annex site.
What’s not an option, he said, is removing any trees or the garden.
“Taking down 300-year-old trees, that’s not the kind of lesson we want to teach young people,” he said.
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