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New Chicago Board of Education members preside over their first meeting on Wednesday July 26, 2023.

Sarah Karp

New Chicago Public Schools board lays out ambitious agenda for school system

The newly seated Chicago Board of Education hand-picked by Mayor Brandon Johnson unveiled ambitious plans Wednesday to transform the school district into a place where parents of students with disabilities want to send their children and where the definition of safety includes “dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.”

“This means viewing students as people with strengths and assets, and not as test scores,” said Jianan Shi, who stepped away from his role as president of a parent advocacy group to become board president.

This was the first meeting of the new board, which included only one holdover from the previous administration in Elizabeth Todd-Breland, a University of Illinois Chicago history professor. In a break from past boards, the new group leans heavily on activists with experience in grassroots organizing and nonprofit organizations.

Shi, reading a statement endorsed by the whole board, said other priorities include preparing for the transition to an elected school board and creating a 10-year master facilities plan that calls for investment in neighborhood schools, as well as investments in career and technical education programs.

He also announced plans to make the school board more accessible. Starting in August, the monthly meetings will be on the fourth Thursday of each month, rather than Wednesdays, to avoid conflicting with City Council meetings. Also, starting in the fall, the board will hold some meetings in the community rather than only at the board’s Loop office.

The number of speakers at board meetings will go from 20 to a cap of 30, and there will be an additional 30 speaking spots at new pre-board meetings where members are briefed on agenda items. Prior to rules implemented because of COVID-19, the board allowed for 60 speakers at the monthly board meeting.

For the first time since COVID-19 pandemic began, the boardroom was packed with a lot of teachers, parents and other activists.

During the public participation section of the meeting, the board got a taste of the complexity of the task in front of them. Teachers asked for a commitment to create green schools, some Near South Side parents urged the board to move forward with controversial plans for a new high school and Ald. Angela Clay asked the board to make Uplift High School the neighborhood school for Uptown.

School psychologists and nurses also asked the board to add more positions and make sure the positions on the books were filled.

School psychologist Rhonda Stone said she and her peers could provide valuable intervention and support for students, but because of limited staffing, many only do diagnostic tests on students and decide whether they need special education services.

CPS’s ratio of student per school psychologist is more than double the recommended ratio.

“So my questions for the board are: How is funding determined to allocate positions for school psychologists and also testing materials that we need to do our job?” Stone asked. “What steps are you guys taking to reduce school psychologists leaving the district? And what are the recruitment efforts?”

The board also heard from speakers about a study that found that North Side Local School Councils publish more accessible information about their agendas, members and meeting times compared to schools on the West and South sides.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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