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The Board of Education under Mayor Brandon Johnson meets with President Jianan Shi presiding. The board is taking a first crack at making its mark on Chicago Public Schools by focusing on neighborhood schools rather than specialty programs.

The Board of Education under Mayor Brandon Johnson is taking a first crack at making its mark on Chicago Public Schools by focusing on neighborhood schools rather than specialty programs.

Anthony Vazquez

Brandon Johnson’s Board of Ed looks to move away from school choice, toward neighborhood schools

In its first steps toward reshaping Chicago Public Schools, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s Board of Education is proposing shifting back toward neighborhood schools and away from the current system of school choice where students compete for seats in selective programs.

The board has limited time to set new ideas in motion ahead of next year’s first school board elections, but any concrete changes made before then could shape the district for years to come.

A resolution up for a vote by the board on Thursday lays out a framework for a five-year “transformational” strategic plan that the CPS CEO will present to the board in the summer. It calls for a “transition away from privatization and admissions/enrollment policies and approaches that further stratification and inequity in CPS and drive student enrollment away from neighborhood schools.”

The ideas align with the education platform Johnson campaigned on — and, like his campaign material, the framework offers few details.

This would be a radical departure for a school system built around allowing parents to choose where their children attend. Some 76% of high school students and 45% of elementary school students do not attend their assigned neighborhood schools. Chicago used to be a neighborhood-based school system, but has moved away from that model over the last 25 years. Just six years ago, CPS officials set up a new application system where they said they wanted every eighth grader to apply for high school, rather than automatically go to their neighborhood school.

Leaders said they don’t foresee dismantling specialty schools such as selective-enrollment, magnet and charter schools, and families will continue to be able to choose those options. Some of the city’s selective schools consistently rank among the top in the state and the country.

But that expectation could change if people in the community say that’s what they want. Officials plan to hold meetings over the next few months for the public to weigh in on how they want this transition to take place.

“This plan needs to be guided and informed by the community,” Board President Jianan Shi said. “The goal is that we’re able to change [the] current competition model so that students are not pitted against one another, schools are not pitted against one another.”

If there is community buy-in to the plan, Shi said it would be hard for the elected board to abandon it. School choice, the future of charter schools and the fate of neighborhood schools are expected to be among the core issues that separate candidates in the first school board elections, slated for November 2024.

Jones College Prep High School, one of chicago's top test-in selective enrollment high schools.

CPS leaders say they don’t expect to dismantle specialty schools like selective enrollment, including Jones College Prep, magnet and charter schools, and families will continue to be able to choose those options.

Manuel Martinez

Can CPS afford to fully-fund schools?

Fully funding community schools, as Johnson and schools leaders have put it, will be quite expensive. CPS is already set to face a $670 million structural budget deficit next year, and new funding to fill that hole has yet to emerge.

School Board Vice President Elizabeth Todd-Breland wants the district to create a “strong, high quality pathway from pre-K to high school” in every neighborhood. Meanwhile, Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez wants families to tell him, “‘I have this great neighborhood option in my neighborhood, and at the same time there are some of these other magnet options, and it’s so hard for me to choose.’ … It shouldn’t be a competition between schools, it should really be families, knowing that, ‘Hey, my child can walk to school and have a great option.’”

The leaders said they want to target resources to communities such as Roseland on the Far South Side that are the farthest from high-level school options. But they acknowledged it will take time for parents to consider neighborhood schools as viable options if they have long looked elsewhere.

Todd-Breland questioned where publicly funded but privately run charter schools fit in the reimagined system. Charter school expansion has stagnated in Chicago after years of growth when they were heralded as hubs of innovation without government bureaucracy that could produce better results with less money. Some 50,000 students attend charters at CPS.

She said CPS is asking if those charter schools are taking public dollars away from other schools that need investment and “are not performing at a level that we find to be a high quality educational experience for young people, then why do you continue to exist in this system?”

The Chicago Teachers Union, where the mayor was an organizer, has been a long-time critic of charter schools.

To accomplish its goals, the board’s resolution calls for the district to move away from its student-based budgeting model, which ties funding closely to enrollment. The system lets principals decide how to spend the school’s money, but it also has been found by researchers to hurt schools that lose enrollment because of outside factors.

The board envisions a new budget system “based on student need, prioritizing communities most impacted by racial and economic inequity, and structural disinvestment and abandonment.”

This could be controversial, with the district facing a $670 million deficit starting in 2025. Redistributing funding could mean drastic cuts for some schools while leaving others unscathed, or even getting more.

One way the school district is looking at investing in these neighborhood schools is by making them “sustainable community schools,” where the school brings in organizations that provide services and supports, from health care to adult education to after-school activities. CPS is spending up to $500,000 on each of the 20 current “sustainable community schools.”

This has long been pushed as a solution by the CTU, and most recently, federal education officials. Some community schools have seen their enrollment rebound.

Johnson ran on a platform of expanding the sustainable community school program. His administration sees it as a way to make neighborhood schools more attractive and also to put empty classrooms to use in schools with low enrollment.

Shi said the community meetings will determine how many schools will get these programs and where they need to be.

The resolution also calls for the school district to confront its facilities problem. A recently released facilities assessment shows the school district has $3 billion in critical repair needs and would require another $11 million to modernize schools. CPS does not have a revenue source to fill these needs.

The resolution suggests that some “underutilized” buildings may need to be used for other purposes, along with previously closed school buildings that have remained vacant. It renews a long-standing call for communities to take part in a process that “reimagines these buildings as community assets, hubs, and resources.”

The school district is currently holding meetings as it also creates a new 10-year master facilities plan. The first one is at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Englewood STEM High School, 6835 S. Normal Blvd.

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

Nader Issa covers education for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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