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8 Things To Watch In Chicago Public Schools This Year

More than 300,000 students will head back to Chicago public schools on Tuesday to start a new year that will present the district with a host of challenges. From finances to politics to classroom life, WBEZ’s education team put together a cheat sheet of what to watch this school year.

1) Plummeting enrollment

CPS has been hemorrhaging students for years, and it expects enrollment will drop this year by another 8,000 students. Last year, CPS saw an enrollment loss of 11,000 students, the largest single-year drop in recent history. More than one-third of the district’s African-American students — 83,000 black children — have left the school system since 2000. It’s the largest exodus from Chicago schools since white flight in the 1970s. These major student declines mean cuts to individual school budgets, layoffs, and potential school closings. This year, CPS expects 306,000 students in the district-run public schools and another 58,000 in the city’s charter schools, which are privately run but publicly funded.

2) School closings

CPS’ self-imposed five-year moratorium on school closings expires in the fall of 2018, but  behind-the-scenes planning for future school closings will likely begin this school year, months before the moratorium lifts. The district has already proposed shuttering four high schools with low enrollment located in Englewood: Hope, Robeson, TEAM Englewood, and Harper, with students consolidated into a new Englewood high school. Additional high schools with very low enrollment will almost certainty be considered for the chopping block, too; some don’t have enough students to pay for a full cadre of teachers. CPS officials predict about two dozen high schools will have fewer than 60 freshmen show up to class on Tuesday.

3) Balancing budgets, higher taxes

CPS’ finances are better this year than in the past, despite drops in student enrollment, but it will come at a cost to taxpayers.

Gov. Bruce Rauner this week signed into law a new way for the state to distribute money to public schools. For CPS, it means at least an additional $325 million in state funds. Under new authority granted in the law, CPS also is expected to raise property taxes by an estimated $125 million to help pay the rising costs of teacher pensions. But CPS will remain saddled with debt. After years of borrowing to meet payroll and make required payments, CPS estimates it will spend about $600 million in debt payments this year — about $1,600 per student.

4) New application for high schools

All eighth graders this year will use a dramatically different process for applying to high schools starting in October. The goal is to simplify what has become a dizzyingly confusing system, with different applications, requirements, and deadlines for the district’s myriad high schools. Instead of separate applications for each type of school one for selective-enrollment schools, one for military schools, one for career and technical education, for example students will apply for all schools from a single online hub. Officials say they hope this will make the process more accessible to all families and give students a better shot at a broad range of schools.

Among the things to watch: Will some families have trouble navigating the new system, especially those who are non-English speakers? Does this become a backdoor justification to close schools that CPS says have no or few applicants? Does having more students apply for schools create more racial and socio-economic balance in the top-performing programs?

5) More dual-language programs

The school district is putting greater emphasis on bilingualism and biliteracy as the percentage of Latino students in CPS grows. Nearly 47 percent of CPS students identify as Latino, according to school records.

For decades, there has been only one dual-language immersion school — the vaunted Inter-American Magnet — where English-speaking kids learn Spanish alongside Spanish-speaking kids learning English. On Tuesday, CPS opens its second “two-way” dual-language immersion program, at Moos Elementary in gentrifying Humboldt Park, a community that has a mix of native Spanish speakers and native English speakers.

Four other schools that serve mostly Spanish-speaking students are also adopting dual-language programs, and CPS for the first time is planning to provide these programs at the high school level (they debut in fall 2018) — meaning subjects like algebra and physics could be taught in Spanish as well as English. The expansion brings to 20 the total number of CPS schools offering dual language, either as a program or schoolwide.

6) New graduation requirements

CPS this year will continue implementing a new statewide mandate that requires high school students to complete a semester-long civics class in order to graduate. Advocates say civics has suffered as standardized tests have emphasized math, reading, and science. The new courses must include four elements: teaching about government institutions, discussion of current and controversial issues, a service learning project, and simulations of democratic processes, like mock elections or trials.

Also this year, expect schools to begin talking up post-graduation plans with their students. This year’s sophomores will be the first group of students impacted by a new graduation requirement: In order to earn a diploma, they’ll need to prove they have a concrete plan after graduation, either a job offer or an acceptance letter from college or the military. The bold plan has been controversial, especially since the average high school counselor in CPS is assigned 296 students.

7) New principals

Will CPS be able to retain more of its principals this year? The district says 54 of its more than 500 district-run schools are starting the year with a new principal at the helm. The exit of dozens of experienced principals is becoming a perennial story in the district. The Chicago Public Education Fund, which works on principal quality issues, says historically just under 20 percent of principals turn over each year, making this year’s numbers look good.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has highlighted strong principals as one of his strategies for improving education in Chicago, and there are new efforts underway to train principals and then get out of their way. But high-profile departures of superstar school leaders have been standard. Just over half of CPS principals stay into their fifth year.

8) Community schools

The agreement that averted a teachers strike last school year required the district to find money to fund between 20 and 55 so-called “community schools” — where services like health clinics, expanded extracurricular programs, and social services become an integral part of schools, often housed onsite. The union accuses CPS of dragging its feet on implementation.

Teachers unions across the country have embraced community schools as a more holistic school reform strategy than testing and accountability measures, since they seek to address family circumstances like unstable housing or trauma that can challenge schools. CPS has been experimenting with community schools over the last two decades.

Linda Lutton and Sarah Karp cover education for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter at @WBEZeducation. Illustrations by Paula Friedrich.

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