Chicago Mayor Promises More School Nurses And Social Workers | WBEZ
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Chicago Mayor Offers Up Big Promises Of More School Nurses And Social Workers

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday offered up a long list of big hiring promises but had few details for how Chicago Public Schools would make them happen.

At the same time, she announced the expansion this fall of a teacher recruitment and retention program at hard-to-staff schools.

“Each one demonstrates our commitment to expanding educational equity for all of our students and our families,” Lightfoot said at a news conference at Michele Clark Magnet High School on the West Side.

The big promises include hiring 250 more nurses and 200 more social workers over five years. It also includes providing more case managers so schools with 240 of more special education students can have at least two, she said. These new hires will be school district employees, rather than contractors, CPS officials said.

Lightfoot also said the district is going to expand access to career and technical programs. Under her plan, half of all incoming freshmen will get an apprenticeship or an internship and all others will at least get a “career exposure experience,” by the time they graduate, Lightfoot said. She did not offer details for how the school district will make this happen.

Further, she said the school district is going to spend a year examining whether the way money is doled out to schools creates inequities — and whether there’s a better way. Currently, schools get a stipend for each student, which means schools with shrinking enrollment lose money.

“I have heard feedback from principals and teachers who are operating with squeezed budgets, but are doing everything they can to do right by their own students, even when it means coming out of their pockets to supply and fill the gap that is not otherwise provided,” Lightfoot said.

The Chicago Teachers Union has been demanding more support personnel in schools for years but want promises codified in the teachers contract currently being negotiated. This is shaping up to be a key issue as the union threatens to strike if there is no deal by September.

The money question

Lightfoot did not directly answer questions about how much the additional staff or career and technical programs would cost or how she plans to pay for them. Instead, she said the school district can afford it because additional money has been coming from the state since a late 2017 overhaul of the Illinois’ school funding system.

“We believe that we have the resources to be able to address this, starting as soon as possible, that is why we are making this specific commitment,” she said. “The fortunes of CPS absolutely have improved.”

The school district will not provide any additional money for social workers, nurses or case managers in the 2019-2020 school year budget, but plans to start hiring the extra staff next year.

Lightfoot said she is making these commitments because she’s heard about the need from parents and teachers. After years of budget cuts prior to 2018, there has been a groundswell of activism calling for nurses and social workers in particular.

Some of that has come from the Chicago Teachers Union. Lightfoot has been non-committal in the face of the union’s demand for contract language spelling out staff-to-student ratios in key areas.

In response to Lightfoot’s announcement, the union said the hiring pledges must be “supported not by press release or public pledge but a real commitment in revenue and a legally binding agreement with the CTU.”

The union also asked several questions in a press release: "Will these individuals be fully licensed and certified school professionals? Will these individuals be staffed by outside companies with zero accountability to students, parents, faculty or staff? Will we be able to see these individuals on day one or in year five? Is this a fixed commitment to increasing wrap-around services or is this an opening offer? Are there loopholes in these promises that will give the mayor the opportunity to renege in year five?”

While Lightfoot did not talk much about money, she did say the school district is limited in what it can do quickly. She noted a lack of available school nurses and social workers.

“It would be easy for us to say ‘yes, we are going to do this in every school,’ but ignoring the reality that there aren’t enough supply yet. But we are going to be working diligently to make sure we get the pipeline going so we can reach our goal,” she said.

In fact, last summer Lightfoot’s predecessor Rahm Emanual promised he would hire 250 additional social workers. But so far, the district has only been able to bring 45 additional ones on board, according to the CPS June 30 employee roster. 

The National Association of Social Workers-Illinois Chapter released a statement criticizing Lightfoot for taking too long to hire these staff. Further, even with these additions, the school district ratio of social workers to students will be 500 to 1, which is more than the recommended ratio of 250 to 1, according to Kyle Hillman, spokesperson for the association.

Recruiting teachers

The one area where Lightfoot and school district officials made a tangible commitment was to include 10 additional high schools in the “Opportunity Schools” program. This program, which was started with 50 schools two years ago, recruits teachers, vets them and then offers them up to schools that have a hard time finding staff.

When it started, it cost the school district $300,000 annually. Since then, the school district has started doing more to support the new teachers in schools. They provide coaches and have them meet on regularly to talk about issues. The school district also works with each school principal to make their welcoming .

The school district did not provide the current cost of the program or the cost of the expansion.

School district officials say the program has decreased the number of vacancies at Opportunity Schools in September. They also say it has helped with retention.

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

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