As a high school English teacher, I know that one of the biggest challenges for my students at the beginning of the school year is being sure about an answer to a question. Sometimes students meander and then finally get to an answer; at other times, they only answer one part of the question. Lately, in reviewing my district’s answers to clear-cut questions about how our schools function, I realize that my students are not alone in struggling to come up with good answers.
And yes, the questions seem to be answerable—here are a few examples that I believe an effective school district should be able to handle. How come my child’s name is not on the preschool roster when I made sure I signed her up? How many librarians are left in my district? Why did the numbers of schools with top quality ratings decrease? Why isn’t my child receiving the same special education services that she received last year? Why has there been a continual decline in enrollment in the district every year for the last fifteen years?
Separately, the answers that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) provides to each question may raise an eyebrow or two, but put together, the inaccuracies paint a portrait of flawed decision-making, faulty blame, and half-truths that further diminish the trust that parents, teachers, and the public at large have in CPS. This decrease in trust has even led many in our city to question numbers recently released by researchers indicating that CPS students’ test scores grew the equivalent of six years in a span of five years of school.
As the school year began and CPS touted improvements to its online preschool enrollment system, many parents of new pre-K students walked their children to their first CPS elementary school only to find out that their child was not on any teacher’s roster. According to WBEZ, some schools had attendance rosters with the wrong names on them and they were turning away parents. A representative from the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, which coordinates with CPS to run the preschool program, blamed a switch in technology vendors and the usage of a less-than-finalized version of the technology system. This means there was no school-based back-up plan and local schools had their hands tied because of a faulty centralized system.
At the beginning of the school year, the Tribune reported that seventy-five percent of CPS students wouldn’t have access to a school librarian—CPS budgeted for only 139 school librarians for 646 schools this year. CPS explained that this number was “conservative,” as it doesn’t include other staff at schools who may monitor the library. The Chicago Teachers Union, in contrast, stated that the number was faulty because many school librarians also teach core classes or have the role in name only and teach a full slate of classes. So what is the actual number? It shouldn’t be difficult to calculate; yet even for this simple question—how many full-time librarians are in your district?—CPS has an unclear answer.
Last month, as reported in the Sun-Times, CPS revealed that the number of schools with top ratings from last year declined by five percent. When media outlets pressed as to why, CPS officials said that many events during the last school year caused attendance declines that lowered their ratings. “The presidential election, the Day Without an Immigrant movement, labor strike uncertainty, and Cubs playoffs” were the culprits. If this is true, what does it say about a school rating system that these types of events and/or absences can drop a school’s rating? In addition, several small elementary schools’ ratings decreased, and a slower growth rate in standardized test scores was to blame. But CPS did not lead with this information and implied that a few absences can tip the rating scales from the highest ranking to one ranking below.
Perhaps the most controversial story originally reported by WBEZ is whether or not CPS changed a set of guidelines for special education students which in turn decreased their services. CPS CEO Forrest Claypool rejected the claim in his own letter to WBEZ. He called the information “erroneous” and conclusions “false.” As the story is currently unfolding, WBEZ stands by their anecdotes, facts, and numbers. But after the accumulated mistrust of CPS, it is difficult to disregard a reputable news organization like WBEZ and the scores of parents of CPS special education students who spoke on record about how the decreased services fully exist and are harmful to their children and other children’s education.
The final question on my list—why CPS’s enrollment is consistently declining—garnered a factual response, but one without any self-analysis. According to the Tribune, CPS attributes the loss of nearly 70,000 students in fifteen years to “falling birthrates, plus slower immigration patterns and the well-documented exodus of residents from the city’s South and West sides.” Although the census data may prove these numbers to be true, it doesn’t capture families’ attitudes or experiences with CPS that may be, in fact, a major factor in the exodus.
Take the Austin neighborhood whose schools’ student populations are nearly all Black. Austin’s CPS enrollment declined by nearly 800 students in several schools in the area. Longtime Austin resident Dwayne Truss told the Austin Weekly News that the 2013 school closures left “an environment of chaos” in Austin.
“We just have been spiraling downwards because again, there’s no stability when it comes to our schools,” Truss said. But CPS never mentioned the impacts of school closings that created this lack of stability in neighborhoods like Austin on the West Side and Englewood and West Englewood on the South Side.
By the end of the school year, my students are masters at answering questions. They provide fully fleshed out responses with clear statements, logical evidence, and convincing analysis. We deserve the same thoughtful responses from our district leaders. As teachers, we are asked often to reflect on our practices—it’s even a part of our evaluation. By consistently providing the public with cloudy responses, CPS gives all of us grave concern over its future directions. How many more families will choose to move away in order to not participate in the politics behind a CPS education? Only time will tell. But right now, it’s time for our district to reflect on its practices—both effective and harmful—in order to provide the best education for all children in Chicago, and to provide Chicago citizens with answers and decisions that we can trust.
Gina Caneva is a fourteen-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum.