Chicago opens new school year: Will it be less testy than the last?

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.

M. Spencer Green/AP
Safety guard Renee Green high-fives Demari Hill as she heads to Gresham Elementary School with her parents, Destiny and Anthony Hill, on her first day of kindergarten on Monday in Chicago. Thousands of students will walk newly designated 'Safe Passage' routes after Chicago Public Schools announced in May it would close about 50 schools and programs.

Chicago on Monday opened a new school year with 48 fewer public schools, fewer teachers, fewer support staff, a reduced budget, and an intense amount of scrutiny, particularly concerning the safety of students from closed schools, many of whom now must cross dangerous neighborhoods to get to their new schools.

It's likely to be a year at least as tumultuous as the last one, which was marked by a seven-day teachers strike and a fierce fight over the school closures. Acrimony between the teachers union and the school district is not expected to abate, as a budget and pension crisis looms, and as Chicago Public Schools begins to implement new Common Core standards and controversial teacher evaluation systems.

“The key question is whether Chicago can set aside the last year’s trauma and focus on improving teaching and learning,” says Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute. While he hopes the focus will be on new standards, improved evaluations, deepening the bench of capable school leaders, and innovation and “next-generation” education models, his expectations are not high. “Chicago is a theater town," he says, "and pension wars, big budget axes, and debates about the merits of [the] Safe Passage [program to safeguard students] may rule the day.”

With 12,000 students affected by the closure of 47 elementary schools and one high school (two more elementary schools will close later), safety was the immediate concern on the first day. Many parents and critics of the school closures – which the district says were necessitated by budget constraints – have warned that violence may result as students walk unfamiliar streets in dangerous neighborhoods and cross gang territory to get to their new schools.

The city, for its part, has initiated a massive safety effort, including hundreds of newly hired guards to man the “Safe Passage” routes to school. The Safe Passage program was already in place at several schools, but the city hired about 600 more workers to man 53 new routes to the “welcoming schools,” to which students from shuttered schools have been reassigned.

On Monday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has taken most of the heat for the controversies of the past year, was out visiting the new routes, walking with some parents and children to their new schools.

Skeptics say the program isn’t enough, is costing money that could have been saved by not closing the schools, and is unlikely to be sustained.

“I went to a receiving school this morning, and there were about a dozen police officers around the school,” says Erica Clark, a parent of CPS students and a member of the organization Parents 4 Teachers, a district critic that has started an accountability hot line for parents to report problems or safety concerns at receiving schools. “I don’t think anyone in their right mind believes that those police officers will be there in February. I’m not sure they’ll be there next week. I don’t think anyone in the schools believes that Safe Passage will protect children if violence occurs.”

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.

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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