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CPS student Yadira Hurtado (left) and her father Julio Lopez (right) go over her homework at their home in Archer Heights on Monday May 13 2024.

Julio Lopez sits with his daughter Yadira Hurtado, a senior at Curie High School, on May 13. Lopez is among the Chicago Public Schools parents who gave the school district a grade of “C” on a recent survey.

Jim Vondruska

Chicagoans give CPS a ‘C,’ say students are not learning enough

Despite years of trying to convince Chicagoans that public school students here are making remarkable academic progress, most residents give the schools a grade of C and say students are not learning enough.

That’s according to a poll released Tuesday by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research organization. WBEZ and the Sun-Times collaborated with Public Agenda and the Joyce Foundation, which funded the project.

“People are not giving city schools high marks,” said David Schleifer, vice president and director of research at Public Agenda, which focuses on researching challenges facing democracy and uncovering solutions. “Also, there’s definitely this awareness that white students in the city have access to better public schools than students of color.”

Schleifer notes that parents and others don’t blame teachers but rather see the lack of learning as an effect of poverty and other challenges affecting students. Some 71% of Chicago Public Schools students come from low-income families. Still, poll respondents say leaders are more caught up in petty political battles than on what is best for children. They are not confident money is being spent effectively.

And few know Chicago voters will elect school board members for the first time this November. In January, when the poll was conducted, 64% were unaware of the coming elected school board. When informed, fewer than half say the elected board will serve students better.

The poll, fielded by NORC at the University of Chicago and released to WBEZ/Sun-Times exclusively, surveyed 2,127 residents who represent a cross section of the city. The poll did not find significant differences in opinions between parents and nonparents, nor between people of different races or ethnicities.

Perceptions versus reality

Over the past decade, school district leaders have boasted about increased graduation rates and pointed to studies showing Chicago students improving at faster rates than in many other districts.

In response to the poll’s results, CPS officials said they are proud of the progress being made. Over the past few years, they say they have set “a new foundational standard of excellence in every classroom” with rigorous instruction and staff to support art, gym and extracurricular activities.

“Recent data has proven that those investments are making a difference,” CPS officials said in a statement. “As a district, we agree that it is a matter of equity that every CPS student has access to challenging and grade-level curriculum and instruction.”

Still, only a quarter of CPS students are considered proficient in reading. And many parents base their opinions not on what CPS says but on what they experience.

“I know CPS is a large school system, and I know that there needs to be systems in place,” said Quiana Hardy, a mother who has a son with special needs. But, she said, “I think sometimes it’s too many systems. It makes it too hard to get things done or to get answers. It makes it very frustrating.”

Hardy ultimately pulled her son from CPS. She says he went for long stretches in second grade without a consistent teacher and believes they tried to push her son out of his school when she spoke up on his behalf. She now home-schools him.

To improve a struggling school, most Chicagoans support remedies such as training teachers and principals and replacing underperforming teachers, according to the poll. The least popular choice, which has been tried in the past, is to close a school and transfer students to a “higher performing school.”

Chicagoans also shared what they considered to be the best indicators of school quality: student and teacher attendance, high school graduation rates and students’ mental health and well-being.

The poll also showed what Chicagoans are not concerned about: under-enrollment, an issue was once seen as a major weight on the district and its budget.

“Actually, more [people] identified overcrowded schools as a pressing issue,” Schleifer said.

Here again, people’s opinion differs from the school district’s view. According to district data, only 5% of schools are overcrowded, but one-third are half empty. About 50 elementary and high schools have fewer than 200 students.

Schleifer said many respondents didn’t have an opinion about the fate of under-enrolled schools, perhaps because few children attend. Also, a school could be under-enrolled but still have large class sizes, which parents often see as a big problem.

Those with opinions about under-enrollment want the district to try to attract more students and families to those schools and neighborhoods. Support for closing schools was low.

The CPS parent perspective

Julio Lopez said his daughter’s high school, Curie Metro on the Southwest Side, is too large and overcrowded. He was among the respondents who gave Chicago Public Schools a C. For the most part, he said the teachers were good: “They do it with love and heart and a lot of effort.”

There are many after-school programs at Curie, he said, and his daughter got involved in theater and dance. She will graduate in a few weeks and hopes to make it in entertainment, he said.

Despite their good experiences, he’s still critical. Many students seem distracted by their phones and it is hard for teachers to compete he said. He wonders why CPS doesn’t ban phones like some suburban schools. He was also frustrated by Curie’s large size.

“There is not enough time to focus on certain students,” he said.

Another parent, Marlene Arroyo, is in the middle of navigating Chicago Public Schools. She sends her two children to her North Side neighborhood elementary school. They do well. She says they are being challenged.

But she says the school doesn’t have enough programs while other schools appear to have more.

“You would think that just because they’re in public schools, they’re all the same, and they’re not,” she said.

For example, her children’s after-school program ends at 2:45 p.m., an inconvenient time for working parents. Other schools go until 6 p.m., Arroyo said.

And their school, Falconer, only goes to sixth grade, and she’s unsure where her daughter will go next year. Arroyo applied for several magnet and selective enrollment schools. But her daughter, despite good grades, was waitlisted for all of them.

Now, Arroyo is considering a charter school.

If all schools could offer the same programs, Arroyo said, she wouldn’t have to worry about any of this.

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

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