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360,000 Chicago students head back to school Tuesday

CPS has spent the last few days releasing good news: fewer students are dropping out, grad rates are rising, test scores are steady and the district’s finances are stable. Yet CPS still faces a looming teachers’ strike, criticism over its budget and a massive enrollment decline in recent years.

Sun-Times file photo
Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools students are headed back to class Tuesday with officials touting systemwide accomplishments amid unanswered questions and challenges.

CPS’ leaders have spent the past few weeks releasing good news: fewer students are dropping out, graduation rates are rising, test scores are steady and the district’s finances are stable.

Yet CPS still faces a looming teachers’ strike, criticism from community groups over its recently approved budget and a massive enrollment decline in recent years.

The most immediate of those questions is what comes next in ongoing contract negotiations between the city and the Chicago Teachers Union.

The latest proposal from Mayor Lori Lightfoot includes a 16% pay raise over five years, but CTU leadership rejected that offer, saying it ignores most of the union’s other demands. The CTU has asked for more nurses and social workers, increased staffing and smaller class sizes.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey has threatened a strike — which would likely come in October, if one were to happen — if the union’s demands aren’t met. The earliest the CTU can legally enact a work stoppage would be Sept. 25.

As for the students in the classrooms, the number of kids in the district has been falling for the past seven years. On the 20th day of school last year, district-wide enrollment stood at 361,314, down a whopping 41,000 kids from 402,681 in June 2011 — just after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel first took office.

This year’s enrollment numbers will be taken on the 20th day of school — which falls on Sept. 30 — and released in October.

Those enrollment numbers are still the key factor in determining how much money a school receives in the district’s yearly budget. In the past, schools with declining enrollment — typically ones with a majority black or Hispanic student body — have been critically hurt by that funding formula. In this year’s budget, CPS included “equity grants” that it said helped to offset some of those losses.

The CTA, meanwhile, is continuing a program that lets students — and their accompanying parents — hitch a free ride on the transit system’s buses and trains on the first day of school.

Among the new additions to the district this year are a state-of-the-art, $85 million high school in Englewood and a new building for first-year students at Taft High School in Norwood Park.