City must help CPS support students through violence, mental health crises, schools chief says

CEO Pedro Martinez previewed the school year for a lunch crowd at the City Club of Chicago in his first appearance there as the head of CPS.

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Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez pictured last year.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez says city and community leaders have lots of work to do to protect kids from violence and strengthen mental health resources heading into the new school year.

Schools and educators can play a role in physical safety and emotional support, but it’s on the city and its partners to expand their capacity so CPS isn’t left doing it all, Martinez told a lunch crowd Wednesday at the City Club of Chicago in his first appearance there as schools chief.

“This is not just a CPS issue, this is a citywide initiative,” Martinez said. “What our students tell us is they feel safe in schools, but they struggle with feeling safe in the communities.”

He said the district is working with park, library and other city agency officials to get creative around student safety. Even when the Chicago Park District puts on programming, for example, some children have said they fear walking to the park alone, Martinez said. In that case, CPS deployed Safe Passage workers — who stand along school routes in the mornings and afternoons — to take kids to parks.

On the issue of mental health, Martinez said the district is working to hire more counselors and social workers while training teachers on responding to trauma. But with so much else on their plate, educators can’t be the only ones responsible for solving the crisis, he said.

Martinez thanked outside organizations and hospitals that help speak with students to identify and refer those who could use support, but said the capacity isn’t there to always actually help those kids.

“We need to build what we’re referring [students] to,” Martinez said. “We need acute services. ... I need this to be a citywide effort because the need is just so great.”

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel controversially closed half the city’s public mental health clinics to save money. Mayor Lori Lightfoot hasn’t fulfilled a campaign promise to reopen some of them, and has instead sought to increase capacity at the remaining clinics and offer grants to private providers for services.

Martinez also used his City Club speech to preview the school year, which he declared will be “our strongest year ever” with a focus on academics.

He said the district has learned from the pandemic and in some ways may come out stronger — such as providing computer and internet access to every student. Academic recovery appeared to improve toward the end of last school year, with the rate of participation in college-level classes back to pre-COVID rates, he said, while also touting $1.5 billion in scholarship offers to the 2022 graduating class — the most ever.

Martinez laid out a broad view of his three-year vision for the district, including reinvesting in neighborhood schools, reexamining the high school admissions process, expanding dual language programs, creating stronger career and technical education options, and focusing on early literacy.

“This is an exciting time to be part of CPS,” he said. “And I am confident that the excitement will only grow in the years to come.”

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