100K CPS families at risk of leaving district need to be re-engaged, interim CPS CEO says

100K CPS families at risk of leaving district need to be re-engaged, interim CPS CEO says

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In his first school board meeting as interim CEO of Chicago Public Schools, José Torres said he wants the district to prioritize re-engaging 100,000 students over the next month who are at risk of leaving the school system largely because of the pandemic.

But as teachers and parents push for additional staff to support students when they do return, school board members and district officials warned that over-committing the school system’s influx of short-term federal funding could dig a deeper financial hole with CPS already facing a “cliff” in a couple years.

That task to bring students back for the new school year next month could be made more difficult with classes starting earlier than usual, the week before Labor Day. The last time CPS tried that start date in 2013-14 it quickly reverted back to its post-holiday start because of abysmal attendance rates.

The district will also have to contend with the lasting effects of the pandemic that have led to lost connections between thousands of families and their schools, as well as parents in communities hard-hit by COVID-19 who are reluctant to return to in-person learning while most kids remain ineligible for a vaccine.

In his first few weeks as interim CEO, Torres said his meetings with district staff have led him to believe CPS has “too many priorities” and needs to focus on finding families ahead of next month’s reopening, for which the district laid out a plan earlier this month.

“My primary goal is engaging 100,000 students who are at risk of not re-enrolling at CPS because of multiple factors, and opening schools safely for five days a week of face-to-face instruction beginning on Aug. 30,” Torres told the school board Wednesday at its first meeting open to in-person public attendance since the start of the pandemic.

“And I need everyone’s help to accomplish that, and we’ve made that our true north.”

CPS saw its largest enrollment drop in two decades last year as 15,000 fewer students attended the district in what officials called a “crisis.” The system stood at 340,000 kids, down 60,000 in the past seven years.

CPS said earlier this summer that to re-engage families they planned citywide back-to-school marketing campaigns, home visits and intensive summer programming including social gatherings and health and wellness events.

Until the first day of school Aug. 30, Torres said he would only meet with people who will help make progress on the priority of re-engaging families.

He has met with Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey for breakfast this month and is making plans to do the same with Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, he said. CPS and CTU have been meeting the last few weeks about the fall semester that’s expected to require a full-time return for all students who don’t have medical vulnerabilities.

How should CPS spend $1.8 billion?

Among the issues the union and other advocates have raised is how the district plans to spend $1.8 billion in federal relief funding.

The union held a rally and news conference outside district headquarters Wednesday morning ahead of the board meeting, with speakers calling for more social workers and other mental health supports that would help students returning from a traumatic year and a half during the pandemic.

Inside at the board meeting, Walter Payton College Prep student Andre Mendoza said families are worried about returning to full schools and hoping for federal funding to help address longstanding needs.

“If the district did genuine comprehensive outreach, they would know that many parents are justifiably nervous about sending their kids back to school, and it is unreasonable to expect full in-person attendance,” Mendoza said.

“I think the [federal] funds should be used to turn the school district into one that addresses the basic necessities of every student. As the board, it is your job to figure out how this can happen.”

After district officials presented their budget for the new year, board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said the district has a long-term deficit, and this federal funding is a one-time deal. Part of the money is needed to keep operations running while providing the additional services that are possible, she said, noting that additional student support has long been needed before the pandemic and still is.

But “we as a board have a responsibility not to create a larger financial cliff than we’re already facing,” Todd-Breland said, advocating for changes at the state and federal levels to commit more education funding to more permanently address student needs.

Board President Miguel del Valle added that it’s “logical, it’s basic math,” that the district can’t create full-time positions such as social workers using temporary federal funding without knowing the jobs could be sustained two years from now when that money runs out. He said he had no confidence Springfield or Washington would provide more funding by then to sustain any additions made now.

“The fact is, there is a cliff in a few years. … And for this board, or any board, to not understand that and face up to it I think is a mistake,” del Valle said.

“We’re using the federal dollars to address what they were intended for, to address the loss of revenue, to address the increased needs particularly in communities hard hit by the pandemic. … But the structural problems that exist, that were there before the pandemic and will continue to be there long after if they aren’t addressed at the state level and the federal level … we have to deal with now.”

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