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Chicago opens new school year: Will it be less testy than the last? (+video)

With 48 schools closed (and two more set to close), some 12,000 students had to find their way to new schools, sometimes through dangerous neighborhoods. Budget cuts and controversy over teacher evaluations loom, but the top concern is safety of students in transit.

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Along with the safety concerns are budgetary ones. The district laid off some 1,500 teachers in recent months, along with other personnel. It is struggling to close a projected $1 billion deficit – blamed on the state’s pension crisis. Moreover, a new school funding system that ties school budgets to enrollment has many schools grappling with large cuts.

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At the same time, the district is pouring money into the 49 receiving schools, to get them ready for the influx of new students. In many schools, CPS has installed air-conditioning and added new libraries, computer labs, security systems, learning gardens, and science labs.

The district's critics are focused not only on the school closures, but also on budget cuts, a profusion of standardized tests, large class sizes, and a governance system that includes a mayor-selected school board rather than an elected one.

“It is looking to be our worst year ever,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of the parent group PURE, assessing the state of the public schools. But she is hopeful that the problems will be a catalyst for change. “Sometimes you have to bottom out in order to make the changes that really need to be made,” she says. “That will begin to happen because our parents are very organized, our teachers are very strong, and the community groups are working with everybody.”

Some groups are calling for students to boycott school on Wednesday and to attend a rally that coincides with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington and “I have a dream” speech.

Mayor Emanuel and Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett have called this year “a new beginning” for CPS students, saying everyone needs to move on from the tumult of the past year.

The mayor and district officials this year are under tighter scrutiny than ever, says Mr. Knowles.

“Any skinned knee on the way to school is going to be attributed to school closures, and any real gang violence in or around neighborhoods where schools were closed, people will draw straight lines back to the school closures,” says Knowles. “The challenge for the mayor and for Barbara Byrd-Bennett is to execute as well as possible, be circumspect when things do happen, but to be very, very clear about what they’re doing to try to solve the immediate challenges of kids relocating to schools” and stay focused on improving learning and education.

The biggest problem facing the district, say Knowles and others, is the looming budget deficit. It is a structural deficit that can’t be solved without a solution to the state’s pension problem.

“This year there were deep cuts to schools and to the central office, and next year it’s going to repeat,” says Knowles. “Looking forward, it looks as though it’s going to repeat consistently, and that we cannot sustain…. If the structural problems aren’t solved, it could spell real peril for 450,000 kids in Chicago.”

Despite all the challenges facing the district, Knowles says, some good things are happening in Chicago schools. Most notably, the district just saw its highest-ever high school graduation rate, projected at 63 percent.

While that rate leaves a lot to be desired, says Knowles, it’s a marked improvement from the 44 percent graduation rate of a decade ago, and it has risen most dramatically in the past several years.

“There are some reasons to be optimistic despite the fact that the guillotine [of the budget deficit] hangs over our head,” he says.

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