Chicago public school students return to class with hope and nervousness

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How schools are looking to overcome pandemic-related mental health challenges and the general impact of long-standing inequalities.

Outside Falconer Elementary School on Chicago’s northwest side, shortly after 7:30 a.m., fourth-grader Sebastian Benitez beamed with pride as he shook hands with Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Surrounded by his mother and younger siblings, the politics buff dressed in a blue polo shirt and jumper said he hoped to become an Ace, having brought home a B the year last.

“I’m going to try to boost that,” he said. “I will try to do better.

Like Benitez, Lightfoot and the CEO of his hand-picked schools, Pedro Martinez, are hoping for a better year, after two tumultuous rides through the massive learning disruption of the pandemic.

“I expect this to be one of the strongest years for CPS,” Martinez said during a mid-morning press conference at Excel Academy of South Shore, an alternative school on the side. south.

The district pledges to redouble its efforts to keep recovery year leaders hopeful last year, before COVID surges, staffing issues and other issues emerge.

Martinez will soon present a three-year master plan for the district that aims to strengthen neighborhood schools, vocational and technical education, services for students with disabilities, and more.

Despite notable challenges, Martinez said he and his team are working to ensure student safety, up-to-date COVID-19 protocols, and provide students with high-quality teachers and staff.

Staffing issues persist

According to publicly available data, there are approximately 3,000 additional positions across the district compared to the pre-pandemic period and more dollars for professional development.

However, not all additional positions are filled. On Monday, Martinez said the district had 900 teaching vacancies across the district, a slight increase from last year when it had 600.

“We’re in a much better place than last year,” Martinez said, while acknowledging that hiring is underway. “We are still hiring bus drivers. We are still recruiting custodial staff. We are still hiring crossing guards.

The district is considering deploying long-term replacements, Martinez added.

The tenor of the first day of classes also signaled a more cordial tone between the district leadership and the teachers’ union.

Outside of Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, leaders and members of the Chicago teachers’ union suggested a new era of increased cooperation with the district was at hand.

“This is a great opportunity to make a fresh start,” said Rebecca Martinez, the union’s organizing director. “I think that’s the wonderful thing about the start of a school year.”

Others spoke of difficulties in filling some vacancies, particularly for educators and support staff who work with students with disabilities and English language learners.

Maggie Slavin, a teacher entering her second year at Back of the Yards, said the high school is entering the new school year with a full complement of special educators and paraprofessionals. But she worries that this is not the case in all CPS schools. She urged district officials to streamline and speed up the process of hiring and onboarding new staff.

Music teacher Felix Ponce called on the district to keep its promises to invest in more equitable access to arts education — an issue he said district and union leaders should address together.

Recent Back of the Yards graduate Britney Quiroz, now a student at New York University, urged leaders to stay tuned to what students are telling them they need — and encouraged fellow students to get involved.

“Student voice is essential to the growth of our community,” Quiroz said. “Young people are gifted with the ability to reinvent.”

Some students face bus rides of over an hour

Over the summer, district officials took action to avoid bus problems that last year left students waiting for rides that sometimes never came. Martinez admitted on Monday that hundreds of students still face bus rides lasting more than an hour each way.

Union president Stacy Davis Gates alluded to those challenges during a speech at the City Club, noting that some children with disabilities will have to ride the school bus “for hours”, she said.

Despite a national shortage of bus drivers, the district has successfully routed over 15,600 students through CPS. It continues to work to hire more drivers by increasing hourly wages, providing alternative modes of transport such as taxis and monthly stipends for parents.

Families who made transportation requests after July will have to wait a few weeks. About 80% of the routes were less than an hour, but Martinez noted that he was looking at a percentage of longer routes and would look at opportunities to improve those longer routes.

“I ask the families to be patient with us,” Martinez said. “Give us a few weeks. There are going to be opportunities for us to be more efficient on the roads.

Security concerns grew after mass shootings and urban violence

Davis Gates offered a starkly different view of the state of Chicago’s public schools than Martinez did in his own City Club speech last week, when the CPS chief said the pandemic had disrupted but not broken a rising district — with record graduation rates and rapidly growing schooling.

Davis Gates said a decade of school closures and experiments in education reform and school turnaround had failed students.

“We should all be disappointed in ourselves,” she said. “It’s an F.”

Offering an alternative to Martinez’s yet-to-be-released master plan, Gates said the union would advocate for stronger arts and athletics programs and expansion of the sustainable community schools model, in which campuses partner with community organizations to provide students with additional support. .

Martinez and Lightfoot touted the steps the district plans to take this year to support student mental health and reengage them in school.

As the festive mood filled schools, some parents said school safety weighed heavily on their minds after mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas and Highland Park earlier this year.

Jonathan Martinez and Natasha Alcedo, parents of a fifth-grade Falconer student, were nervous about the “unfortunate” shooting but hoped for a safe and blessed school year.

“As parents, we’re always nervous when kids go back to school,” Alcedo said. “We hope they learn well and that the teacher and children are kind to them – along with all the other safety precautions that we always worry about on a daily basis.”

CPS chief of safety and security Jadine Chou said the district and several city agencies, including the Chicago Police Department and the city’s Office of Emergency Management, conducted a drill the last week in the works, Chou said. The district holds more than 3,800 drills each year, she noted.

The district also implemented a new visitor management system, new safety video training and expanded programs that go beyond physical safety to offer social, emotional and mental support, Chou said.

“We take safety and security at CPS very seriously,” said Lightfoot.

A man and woman greet children on their first day back to school in Chicago.

Chicago Public School CEO Pedro Martinez, center left, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, center right, greet students on the first day of classes after summer vacation at Falconer Elementary School in the Belmont Cragin district of the city.

Mauricio Pena / Chalkbeat

As Lightfoot and Martinez greeted families at Falconer, they asked students about their day one hopes and offered compliments on haircuts and lunch boxes.

Hundreds of students and parents awaited the opening bell – a signal of the official end of summer for students – including Ethan Duran, his mother and two siblings. The ninth grader is looking forward to returning to class, in part, to play on the newly installed playground.

Her mother, Soledad Galvan, was cautious about going back to school. She said unknown questions around the monkeypox virus and making sure schools were safe “no matter what” was a priority for her.

Despite these worries, she hopes for a good year for her three children.

The same goes for her son, who looked at the playground and said, “I’m excited! »

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at [email protected]

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago’s public schools. Contact Mila at [email protected]

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