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Taft High School’s new $77M freshman building opens for class: ‘It’s so cool’

The annex was built to ease overcrowding at Taft’s main building, which was about 1,200 students overcapacity last year.

taft freshman academy
William Howard Taft Freshman Academy located in the Dunning neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago, Ill., on September 3rd, 2019.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Bridget Doherty Trebing has worked at Taft High School for the past 19 years, often teaching in overcrowded spaces as more and more students enroll at the Norwood Park school.

That’s part of the reason why the visual arts teacher was excited this week to move into Taft’s new Freshman Academy, a $77 million building that now houses the school’s 9th graders and its 7th and 8th grade Academic Center, which requires admissions testing.

“It’s such a beautiful space,” Doherty Trebing said this week. “It made me cry because I know every student is very lucky. I want every student everywhere to have this. ... New doesn’t always equal good, but it can because we all deserve to be in a welcoming, safe place.”

taft freshman academy
After completing their classes, students leave William Howard Taft Freshman Academy located in the Dunning neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago on Tuesday, Sept. 3rd, 2019.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

The Freshman Academy was built at 4071 N. Oak Park Ave. as a way to relieve overcrowding at the main building — which ideally fits 2,400 students but had 3,700 last year — and make room for a potential increase in enrollment.

About the same number of students are expected at Taft overall, with 1,200 students enrolled at the new building, which is about a 10-minute drive from what’s now called the “varsity campus” at 6530 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.

After completing their classes, students leave William Howard Taft Freshman Academy located in the Dunning neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Assistant Principal Ryan Glowacz said he and the rest of the staff have faced long days trying to gear up for the start of the school year since they moved into the building just last Thursday. But they seemed to have gotten the job done, he said, because the start of the year has gone “pretty smooth.”

“Teachers are thrilled. You’re teaching in such a beautiful atmosphere,” Glowacz said. “This building is such a blessing because at this campus the majority of teachers are one teacher to a classroom. So you can really own the space.

“And students are so happy,” Glowacz said. “Our principal said that with this campus, he feels like it’s Christmastime, you have that perfect gift for someone and you almost can’t wait to give it to them. And today was giving the gift.”

Students attend soccer training on the field of Taft Freshman Academy located in the Dunning neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Peighton Barrett, 12, started Tuesday as a 7th grader in Taft’s Academic Center, which used to be at Taft’s varsity building.

“It was really cool,” Peighton said of her new school. “I just really like the layout and how it’s made. It’s so cool.”

Peighton said her first day at the school went off without a hitch — minus a few scheduling issues for her and her friends — and that she’s excited to get to spend more time in the building.

“During passing periods it’s super congested, but only if you use the front stairwells,” Peighton said. “So you gotta use the back stairwell. But you can’t tell anybody.”

taft freshman academy
Peighton Barrett and her mother, Dee, are all smiles after the first day of school Tuesday at Taft Freshman Academy in Dunning.
Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Dee Barrett, Peighton’s mom, said she liked the fact that her daughter would be separated from the older high school students.

”As the parent of a 12-year-old, that just made more sense to me,” Barrett said.

Though Barrett hasn’t yet been inside the building, she said she appreciates all the after-school programs offered and the inter-campus shuttle that takes younger kids to the main campus for activities. Peighton, for example, plans to play trombone or flute in the marching band and will be able to get to the other building.

And as an Old Irving Park resident, Barrett said she’s happy that a bus service from home is offered for the 7th and 8th graders in the Academic Center.

”It’s a beautiful building,” Barrett said. “I’m very pleased with how it turned out and happy the students have such a great place to call home.”