John C Coonley Elementary School was built during the World's Columbian Exposition, the historic Chicago World’s Fair of 1892, which opened to the public May 1, 1893 and continued until October 30, 1893. Originally Belle Plaine Avenue School, in 1901 the name was changed to Coonley after John C. Coonley (1838-1882), a Chicago businessman born near Utica, NY. In the last year of his life he served as president of the Union League Club, a Chicago institution he helped found.
A front page story in the July 15, 1892 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, “Making Ready a City. Aldermen Still Preparing for World's Fair,” (excerpt at right) mentions the City Council approved a Committee on Schools recommendation to appropriate for a “school site, Leavitt and Belle Plaine avenue, $4,450.” Noted earlier in the account is, “four-room frame building, Leavitt and Belle Plaine avenue.”
The school's original wooden structure was torn down and replaced by today's brick and stone building in 1902. Additions to the school were built in 1906 and 1957. In 1970, low-pressure steam boilers were installed to replace high-pressure, hand-fired coal boilers that heated the school since 1924. A comprehensive renovation of the school building and grounds was completed in 2008-2009 with $3.75 million provided by Chicago Public Schools and the Federal government.
Money raised by Coonley parent and community organizations in recent years have funded a new science center and library improvements in addition to numerous programs. In the fall of 2010 a capital campaign raised over $35,000 to be used for enhancing facilities in the multi-use gymnasium.
Tribune front page from the July 15, 1892 edition, in which the article appeared.
The news story at right, published in the Tribune's September 11, 1904 edition and headlined, “Flower Gardens in School Yards,” reports that 250 Chicago public school principals agreed to get the “schoolboys and the schoolgirls to help them shovel, and hoe, and plant,” asking the school board only for black dirt and to remove the bricks covering their school yards.
Coonley principal, Miss Cora Lewis, is noted as one of two administrators inspiring the action in her address at a meeting of the Principals Association, urging them to, “take up the work of planting trees in the schoolyards.”
The story goes on to predict, “After all the work is done and every school window still holds a miniature garden, and every schoolyard is a bower, and every back alley fence is burdened with trailing vines, the hope is that this beautiful sight will take the rough edges off of the thoughts of the urchins of the streets and make their hearts warm with sentimentalism.”
Letter to the editor of the Tribune published Oct. 8, 1926.
May 21, 1937: A unique tree on the Coonley grounds was featured in the Tribune (below left).
At right, an image of an Oct. 6, 1935 Chicago Daily Tribune story about a birthday party for the Coonley principal at the time, Elizabeth A. McGillen, who was retiring after serving three decades at the school. (A Dec. 15, 1966 Tribune story noted that in its first 73 years Coonley had only six principals, which was something of an anomaly even then.)
The story describes her as popular with students and teachers at Coonley where she, "ruled in wisdom and kindliness since the first decade of the century" and goes on to mention, “Miss McGillen had advanced ideas in education that were given expression at Coonley. Under her principalship it became one of the first industrial schools in the city.”
“On the matter of boys and the great American game. . . Somehow Miss McGillen always understood all about baseball and its meaning in the scheme of things from the fellows' standpoint. Graphic tales are those to be garnered from the lads at Coonley concerning Miss McGillen's ‘open, sesames’ that so often sent excited youngsters streaming through the gateway of Wrigley Field into a dream come true.”
Sixty years before Coonley's recent $3.75 million facelift, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a story in its Jan. 12, 1947 edition under the headline, “Architect Says Coonley School Needs No Repair” about the school board’s response to a Northcenter commercial association petition to “build a new and modern Coonley School.”
The petition stated the “school had outlived its usefulness . . . providing facilities for modern education; that it contained fire hazards, and was difficult to keep in safe and sanitary condition because of its age.”
The school board architect defended the school’s condition as “sound and safe structurally and generally in good condition.”
At this time the stairways were still made of wood and the gym was on Coonley's third floor. The gym, the petition stated, “Is not large enough or properly equipped to provide children with proper physical education and recreation. When gym classes are held the noise created makes it impossible to use classrooms below.”
The article mentions an incident over a weekend the year before in which falling plaster in a classroom wrecked a piano.
The Tribune ran several stories through the years about a beat officer, John J. Komerska or “Johnny the Cop” as he was known in the neighborhood, who for decades helped school children near Irving Park Road at Leavitt on their way to and from school at Coonley and St. Ben's. In 1952 and 1956 the officer was transferred as part of routine assignment rotations but returned both times to his old beat after school children besieged the police commissioner with petitions in protest.
The story reproduced above, from the Tribune’s June 6, 1959 edition, describes a farewell party attended by church priests, students, and the alderman, the week before his retirement from the police department.
A newspaper photo of kids playing outside Coonley during the aftermath of the large winter storm that buried Chicago in snow in January 1978.
In 2008 Principal Kartheiser announced that, with the support of CPS and local representatives, the city’s newest Regional Gifted Center was to be located at Coonley.
In November 2010 Rahm Emanuel affirmed his association with the school by announcing his mayoral candidacy to media and 250 supporters in Coonley's gym.