Mayor Rahm Emanuel rang the opening bell Tuesday — a few minutes after the official start of the school day — at a high-achieving school on the southwest side of the city.
The presence of the mayor earned a classroom of first-graders a few extra minutes to climb on the brand-new playground equipment at Edwards IB Fine and Performing Arts Dual Language School, a name that reads like a grocery list of Edwards’ successes.
The mayor got a growing, multicultural elementary school — complete with a music program for pint-sized mariachis — and a new multimillion-dollar annex, as a backdrop to tout the success of Chicago Public Schools as the district begins yet another challenging year. The school was one of at least three high-achieving schools the mayor was to tour Tuesday.
“Today, because of all the investments we’re making and also all of the choices we’ve made to make sure our kids get a full school day, full school year, we no longer as a school district make a choice between reading or recess,” Emanuel told a group of a few hundred students and parents at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Edwards’ new cafeteria. “Our kids get reading and recess.”
Emanuel then ticked off a long list of options open to CPS students, and subsequent speakers went on to tally other promising figures, such as rising graduation rates, and improving district-wide scores on standardized tests and college entrance exams.
But the 2016-2017 school year also opens with numbers that seem less like cause for celebration. Immediately, the heat index Tuesday was to hit triple-digits — meaning Edwards students will have to find some shade on the brand-new artificial turf playing field.
Earlier Tuesday, CPS chief education officer Janice Jackson had said that given the high temperatures — and the continued lack of air-conditioning in some CPS classrooms — “principals will continue to use discretion as they’ve done in the past to ensure that students are comfortable and ready to learn.”
Fewer than 100 CPS schools still have classrooms without air conditioning, Jackson told reporters outside Jungman Elementary School, 1746 S. Miller. In those cases, there will be extra fans and bottled water on hand — “all the things students will need to be comfortable,” she said.
Still, despite the heat, Jackson also declared that “back to school is always an exciting time. … I remember as a teacher just having butterflies in my stomach and waking up with the morning jitters, and just looking forward to children coming back excited about school.”
Jackson also touted two new Safe Passage routes, at Al Raby and Dyett high schools, adding that CPS statistics show higher attendance rates at schools with Safe Passage routes.
“School is a safe haven for many kids,” Jackson said. “At least we know where children are seven or eight hours a day.”
In coming weeks, Chicago Public Schools will need to close a deal on a new teachers’ contract to stave off a strike that could derail classes as soon as next month. And sometime around Christmas break, the dysfunctional relationship between Democratic legislative leaders and Gov. Bruce Rauner will need to yield yet another deal to release hundreds of millions in state dollars needed to balance the CPS budget for the rest of the year.
Fielding questions from reporters after the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Edwards, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said the district had made an offer to union leaders, but would not say if it was the same deal union leaders rejected in January.
“We have a very generous proposal on the table, a generous raise for teachers who deserve as much as we can give them given the difficult finances of the district and we’re hoping they’ll say yes to a raise,” Claypool said.
“We’re at the table regularly. The talks will intensify this week.”
Asked if the district’s financial struggles had meant that individual schools are opening the year with less money than last year — when principals were asked to take the rare step of making mid-year budget cuts — Claypool said the only schools that suffered were the ones that lost students.
“Enrollment is a factor, there are a lot of schools that are losing enrollment but other schools are gaining enrollment, like (Edwards),” Claypool said. “That’s typical of a district of 661 schools.”
Officials from the Chicago Teachers Union also were at several schools, including union president Karen Lewis, who was outside Martin Luther King College Prep High School, where she told reporters that “I don’t know whether there will be a strike. I’m not in control of that. That’s a decision that’s made by our membership.”
Edwards parent Albany Contreras seemed less concerned as she dropped off her 6-year-old son, Santiago, for his first day of first-grade. Contreras chose Edwards over an UNO charter school and other options in the neighborhood because she’d heard positive things about the school and noticed the construction.
“This is a new school for my family,” Contreras said. “We’ve never been here before, but I’ve heard nothing but good things so far from everyone.”
Contributing: Ashlee Rezin