When Danely Quiroz started her senior year at Roosevelt High School this fall, a familiar face was missing. One of her favorite teachers had been laid off, along with other staff members and the school’s only librarian – part of more than 1,000 employees in Chicago Public Schools who lost their jobs in August's round of cuts.
The news hit Danely hard. While her 94-year-old high school has a storied history, with notable alumni including writers Nelson Algren and Shel Silverstein, Roosevelt has suffered from regular budget cuts during her time as a student. The school, which serves just under 1,200 students, has lost $2.5 million in funding over the past two years.
The impact on students has been noticeable. The school does not have enough textbooks, so Danely says kids have to share in class. The teacher cuts mean some classes have as many as 40 students. In one of her Advanced Placement classes, there are more students than desks. The lack of a librarian now means that students are unable to check out books or get help on research projects, like in past years.
The staff that Roosevelt lost, especially Danely’s former world studies teacher, made a real difference in how students like her saw themselves and their neighborhood, she says.
“He was one of the first teachers who made me really love my school,” Danely says of Tim Meegan. While many in her neighborhood say that her school is filled with “drug dealers and gang bangers,” Danely says that Mr. Meegan taught her to look beyond these stereotypes.
Albany Park is one of the city’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, with many residents, like Danely’s parents, coming from other countries. But the area also has its share of violence and drug trafficking.
Danely remembers hearing gunshots when she stayed late at school one evening. On her walk home, she saw police inspecting a pool of blood behind yellow barricade tape. In such an atmosphere, she says teachers like Meegan make a real difference in students’ lives.
“He talked about the diversity, the richness in [the school]. And I think that really helped me as a freshman coming from middle school and hearing all of the negative stereotypes and the stigma around [Roosevelt].”
It’s a difficult time to be growing up in Chicago. Public school students like Danely face a host of challenges, including fewer teachers and resources at school along with the ongoing challenges of poverty and violence in their community. Despite that, the district has seen impressive improvements in student test scores and graduation rates in recent years. More than 73 percent of high school students here are now graduating. Although still below the national average of 83 percent, this marks a 16-point gain from just five years ago.
But many here are concerned that those gains won't last without adequate financial resources.
“I keep waiting for the floor to fall out,” says Elaine Allensworth, the director of the Consortium on School Research at the University of Chicago. “The budget crisis, the political conflict, the leadership turnover, not to mention the excessive gun violence in our city and extreme segregation – all of these things make it so difficult for schools.”
Strike averted, but challenges remain
In one bright spot, the Chicago Public Schools came to a tentative agreement with the teachers union over contracts last week – minutes before deadline. In avoiding another strike, which would have been the second time teachers shut down schools in 2016, many here are hoping that the district can finally move past the financial uncertainty that has marked recent years. But the struggles for students in Chicago are far from over.
In addition to the financial problems that led to the cuts that have left schools like Danely’s understaffed, the district has gone through a succession of CEOs, including one who pleaded guilty last year to accepting kickbacks. The revolving leadership and staff changes have left the district without a clear vision, says Ms. Allensworth, and unable to adequately serve their students, many of which live in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods.
“Class sizes have been going up and support staff has been going down,” says Allensworth. “Here you have almost all of the schools serving almost all low income students, who are going to need a lot of support. Many students are coming to school behind academically and yet the class sizes are very large in some schools and they’re losing social workers, counselors, aids, and nurses, all of this support staff that a lot of schools desperately need.”
More than 86 percent of students in Chicago public schools are economically disadvantaged, meaning that they qualify for free or reduced school meals. African-American and Hispanic students make up 84.9 percent of the student population, and many of them live in the highly segregated neighborhoods on the south and west side that have experienced spikes in gun violence this year.
Over 3,400 people have been shot so far in Chicago this year, and 579 people have been killed. These numbers are up substantially from 2015, which saw fewer than 3,000 shootings and 492 homicides for the entire year.
“So many students, especially in the neighborhoods with the highest percentage of poverty, have been exposed to trauma in so many different ways,” says Allensworth. “The fewer resources the schools have, the harder it is for them to maintain staff and programs [which address that trauma].”
Birth of a student leader
Danely's response to all the uncertainty has been to take an active role in her school and her community. She volunteers as a mentor for freshmen and helps them stay on track. And with a group of other students she founded a student council for the school. This year, she's serving as president.
But the moment she points to as her political awakening came earlier this year, during the citywide teacher walkout in April.
She was supposed to have the day off. Classes had been canceled, with teachers going on strike to protest the school district’s faltering finances and inability to agree on a new contract. But Danely wanted to share her story. She begged her mother to drive her to the school parking lot, where people and TV cameras were gathering, before dawn. At 6 a.m., Danely took the stage.
“How can our teachers teach when we don’t have the textbooks used to learn?” she asked the crowd. “How can they teach in overcrowded classrooms with 39, 40 students? How can they teach when we’re not given the resources to learn or the teachers that teach those subjects? I’m tired of having substitute teachers and temporary ones. This is unacceptable, this is not right.”
Danely was prepared to speak again last week, before the strike was averted. But she says that she's happy the union and the school district were able to come to a tentative agreement. While she thinks it probably won't solve all of her school's problems, it is a good start.
In addition to resolving the issue of teacher pay, the tentative agreement addresses the issue of teacher cuts and overcrowded classrooms. Kindergarten through second grade classes that have more than 32 students will now have a teacher’s assistant. High schools like Danely’s, however, will not see any change through the proposed contract.
Despite the many challenges that remain for Chicago public school students, Danely is optimistic about not only her own future but the future of the city’s education system. She is interviewing at colleges now, and plans to be the second in her family to attend. But she says her story is not unique. She has seen how dedicated her fellow students are to learning and how willing they are to fight for better schools.
“Roosevelt students are not just students, they’re dreamers, they’re activists, they’re scholars, they’re musicians, they’re bookworms, they’re gamers, and they’re artists. We’re a diverse group, but something that we all have in common as Chicago students is that we care,” says Danely. “I think it’s safe to say that Chicago will be in good hands later on. And I will be one of the people who will make sure that the future is going to be bright and loving.”