For the better part of the last decade, I’ve served as president of the Chicago Public Schools Board and on the management side, both of which have afforded me a unique perspective on the challenges facing the district. It’s allowed me to provide counsel to both our mayor and CEO based on what I know has worked well in the past and what has not. Over these past two years, this administration has learned from those experiences by making difficult choices that could have been deferred, but for the sake of our students they were not.
Just looking at the challenges from the last year give me every indication, that a fresh start is possible. One year ago, the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Board of Education reached an agreement that ended Chicago’s first teachers strike in over 25 years. The strike was characterized by heated rhetoric, rallies, and marches. It inconvenienced parents, but most important it disrupted the education of our children.
In the end, the two sides came to an agreement on the amount of time our children should spend in the classroom, a variety of compensation and benefits issues, and a groundbreaking, new teacher evaluation system, which represented the first change to the way teachers were evaluated in over 40 years.
After the strike, the new CEO, Dr. Barbara Byrd-Bennett with the support of the board, took on the complex issue of under-utilization, which not only exacerbated the district’s already weak financial condition, but negatively affected the delivery of education at those schools. Through the winter and spring, an extensive community engagement process was initiated that resulted in the closing of 50 schools.
In the spring and summer, we took on our next challenge, a $1 billion financial deficit and decided to use one-time resources to minimize the impact on the classroom. This was and always will be the lens we use — to do what’s in the best interests of our children, and try to the best of our ability to protect what’s closest to them — the classroom.
Tackling these challenging issues led to the most significant community engagement for the future of our schools in recent memory. In an impressive collective effort, Chicagoans showed their true interest and investment in their children.
Not everyone agreed with the decisions made, but voices were heard, and a better foundation was laid. However, the turmoil raised concerns and anxieties about the future of the district and the system’s ability to educate our children. Fortunately, in spite of this turmoil, our school leaders, our teachers, stayed focused on their passion — educating children, and moved forward an agenda full of potential.
They implemented the full school day, added recess for all elementary school students, and provided extra time and attention for our high school students in their extracurricular activities. They expanded enrichment opportunities including the implementation of the district’s first ever city-wide Arts Education Plan, and nearly 500 schools now have arts liaisons. They began the implementation of new curriculum that met the Common Core standards two years in advance of the 2015 state requirement. They launched new STEM schools, International Baccalaureate programs, and expanded selective enrollment seats as part of the district’s commitment to expand high quality options for parents and students.
Our teachers, school leaders and students continued to make demonstrable progress not only by increasing the graduation rate to an all-time high, but improving reading and math test scores achieving record ISAT results, and raising an unprecedented $400 million in scholarships for graduating seniors to support their college tuition.
They opened a new school year with a new school calendar and welcomed about 400,000 students without incident. With enthusiasm and exuberance our children are off to a great start, thanks to the educators that bring their passion to work every day.
The new contract called for a joint committee between CPS and CTU leadership to oversee the implementation of the new teacher evaluation system, REACH Students, created with the feedback of thousands of CPS teaches across the city. And the committee proved to be a model for what cooperation can do to improve the Chicago Public Schools. As about 5,000 teachers were evaluated this year, the design was intended to help teachers improve their practice. The feedback and results from teachers and school leaders have been overwhelmingly positive, reporting that the observation process encourages professional growth. An evaluation system that supports our teachers ultimately ensures our students’ success.
The difficult decisions provided a foundation for our district’s future including: More time in the classroom, which translated to over two years of additional time through the course of our children’s CPS career; investment in our neighborhood schools with over $150 million of accelerated investments in our welcoming schools; and focus on the early years by increasing preschool slots and expanding full-day kindergarten.
As we begin the execution of CEO Byrd-Bennett’s five-year plan, The Next Generation: Chicago’s Children there is still much work to be done, but with Mayor Emanuel’s continued leadership, the commitment of our school leaders and teachers, and the engagement of our parents and students, we will turn the page from uncertainty and anxiety to hope and promise.
David Vitale is president of the board of the Chicago Public Schools.