LIFEBOUND | Learning on the Job: The Fight to Fix Chicago’s Schools
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Learning on the Job: The Fight to Fix Chicago’s Schools

Learning on the Job: The Fight to Fix Chicago’s Schools

WHEN OUTGOING CHICAGO Mayor Rahm Emanuel hands over the keys of the city to newly elected Lori Lightfoot in May, he’ll be passing on, among other things, a K-12 system at the top of its game.

Though not without battle wounds – some of them still raw – Emanuel’s tenure comes to a close at a time when the Chicago Public Schools system is boasting an all-time high graduation rate nearing 80 percent. During his stewardship, students’ average test scores improved by roughly six grade levels, and they’re now learning at a faster rate than 96 percent of all school districts in the country, including their wealthier and more well-resourced peers.

“There was never a problem we pushed down the road or kicked the can on,” Emanuel says of his education agenda. “We confronted every problem: Everything that had gotten worse because we had avoided making tough calls, we confronted head on.”

Among some of his proudest achievements, he says, is the rollout of the STAR program, which guarantees public school students who graduate with a 3.0 GPA or higher can pursue an associate’s degree at City Colleges of Chicago free of charge. He also cites the recent establishment of a free, universal prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds.

“We went from a K-12 system to pre-K-college model,” Emanuel says. “We added four years to the education system.

“That’s not like a new Riverwalk,” he adds, referencing the blockbuster redevelopment of the city’s riverfront that he brokered with the backing of private dollars. “It’s not like a new airport. It’s not like a physical thing. They get four additional years of classroom time than they did a decade ago.”

Not to be left out: Emanuel’s role in wrangling additional dollars out of a historic new school funding formula the state passed last year that sent $450 million in new money to Chicago Public Schools.

“I won that battle,” Emanuel says of his sparring with then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican. “We wrestled to the ground the worst education system from a funding perspective.”

“But what I’m most proud of,” Emanuel says, “is that we took a school system that was once called the worst in America that’s now called the single best one in America and one to model yourself after. It takes a lot of political courage.”

But it hasn’t been without controversial decisions that made the mayor plenty of enemies along the way.

High on that list is his 2013 decision to shutter 50 elementary and high schools due to dwindling enrollment – most of them traditional neighborhood public schools – during a time when he directed more dollars to establishing magnet and other types of entrance-exam schools and welcomed dozens of new charter schools.

In 2017, the city laid off 950 Chicago Public Schools employees, 350 of them teachers due to continued enrollment decline and funding issues.

Many have also raised concerns over a controversial new requirement set to take hold in 2020 that would only allow students to earn their high school diploma if they provide evidence that they have a plan for the future, such as an acceptance to college, a trade apprenticeship, military enlistment or a job offer.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which in 2011 poured nearly half a million dollars into the campaign of Emanuel’s opponent, has fought the mayor on almost every education decision he’s made, arguing that his policy agenda only serves to perpetuate the glaring gaps between the haves and have-nots.

“Emanuel has left our public schools with a legacy of eight years of chronic underfunding, deplorable facilities neglect, and desperate staff shortages of school nurses, special education teachers, librarians and other critical staff,” says Christine Geovanis, communications director for the Chicago Teachers Union, who characterized the mayor’s education legacy as a “distorted agenda of school privatization, austerity and chronic handouts of precious public dollars to wealthy private interests.”

She slammed the mayor for caring more about real estate development deals, like Lincoln Yards, the proposed mixed-use development project in North Chicago, than the city’s chronically neglected black and Latino neighborhoods.

Still, some insist the mayor, though hard-charging on his education agenda at the outset, took a different tack in the second half of his tenure.

“I’ve always had the privilege of seeing him compromise and seeing his views evolve through conversations with people working on the ground,” Janice Jackson, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, says. “I’ve had that perspective and been able to see that up close and personal.”

“Emanuel has left our public schools with a legacy of eight years of chronic underfunding, deplorable facilities neglect, and desperate staff shortages.”

“If you look at his tenure as mayor,” she continues, “his first term definitely could be characterized as a place he pushed really, really hard and demanded improvement. But the second term was much more focused on, No. 1, doubling down but also adding much more community engagement to the process. I think that his story and the time that he’s been here, we’ve seen him grow as a leader.”

Emanuel, too, alluded to this in a recent personal essay in The Atlantic, in which he admitted he was wrong to drive hard an education reform agenda – one that embraces charter schools and bases teacher evaluations and pay in part on student test scores, for example – without taking more time to understand the nuances involved in lifting up an entire school system.

“For most of my career, I preached the old gospel of education reform,” wrote Emanuel, a three-term congressman who served as White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama at a time when the administration was pushing an aggressive education reform agenda. “But now research and experience suggest that policy makers need to embrace a new path forward and leave the old gospel behind.”

To be sure, he doesn’t consider his shift in thinking a total mea culpa.

“I don’t think they’re wrong,” Emanuel says about the education reform evangelists. “I don’t think they’re 100 percent right.”

Big changes are likely to come to Chicago schools with the election of Lightfoot, who pledged to freeze the number of charter schools, restructure the school board so that members are selected by voters instead of appointed and refocus investments to traditional neighborhood schools rather than magnet and other types of entrance-exam schools.

Lightfoot, who was not the Chicago Teachers Union’s top choice, has talked about beginning a healing process for neighborhoods impacted by the major school closings and promised going forward that school closures would be a last resort.

Also on her agenda is increasing funding for career and technical education and continuing to expand early education.

Jackson outlined a five-year strategic plan for the city’s schools last week, focused on closing the achievement gap between groups of students – though it’s unclear whether she’ll ever get a chance to pursue that goal. Lightfoot has said she’s not sure whether she’ll retain Jackson, who was appointed by Emanuel in 2017, or pick someone new for the job.

“As a person who’s been in Chicago my entire life and someone who personally champions public education, I think it’s been pretty remarkable,” Jackson says of the school district’s improvement during Emanuel’s tenure. “There are so many things to be proud of. We didn’t get here overnight and it wasn’t an easy road.”

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