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Chicago schools work to deliver for its struggling students – Crain's Chicago Business

Michelle and Israel Yarbrough transferred their son, Josiah, now 11, out of CPS to a private school in the fall of 2020. This fall, daughter Joycelyn will join her brother at the school.

Before the pandemic, Michelle Yarbrough says her son, Josiah, was a straight-A student at Charles H. Wacker Elementary School in the Washington Heights neighborhood. But once Chicago Public Schools went remote in spring 2020, she saw his grades begin to slip.
“I didn’t think it would affect the progress report the way that it did,” Yarbrough says. But when she saw that he had a D, she knew she had to do something. “He never had a D or F.”
At the time, Josiah was in third grade, and his class met online with his teacher only on Fridays. For the remaining four days, Yarbrough says, students were tasked with completing their schoolwork largely by themselves.
“I couldn’t digest that, and I felt like that was not going to set him up on a road for success,” Yarbrough says of the minimal interaction her son had with his teacher.
Yarbrough’s daughter, Jocelyn, on the other hand, who attended James E. McDade Classical School, a CPS selective-enrollment elementary school where admittance is by application and testing, had regular touchpoints with her teacher and continued to do well academically.
Few would argue that the pandemic upended the lives of teachers, administrators and, especially, students at every economic level.
More affluent families dealt with child care and remote learning struggles, and many were able to ditch public schools by turning to home schooling; joining other families in so-called pandemic pods; or putting their children in private schools. But for families in Chicago’s economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, already limited by access to fewer educational resources, the public health crisis exacerbated long-standing inequities that contribute to a stubborn racial wealth gap.
Now the question is whether the city’s public school system, which is nearly 83% African American and Hispanic, can adequately prepare students for a job market increasingly reliant on technology and the STEM skills—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—needed to support sustainable employment.
If interventions like high-dosage tutoring, more social-emotional support and creating engaging class environments aren’t put into place to help students make up lost ground, the last 2½ years may have long-lasting effects. It could lead to lower graduation rates and declines in college and postsecondary training enrollment. Young people may struggle to gain the necessary life-sustaining job skills. And as a consequence, the racial wealth gap will be even harder to close.
The pandemic switch to remote learning revealed many systemic weaknesses and other education inequities.
CPS Chief Education Officer Bogdana Chkoumbova says the district had to quickly catch up in “getting the technology in place” and pivot to remote learning at the onset of the pandemic. The result was an uneven implementation that the district is trying to rectify.
The challenges around implementing remote instruction prompted CPS to place “schools that are the most disadvantaged” at the forefront of its ongoing and post-pandemic initiatives, Chkoumbova says. Almost every school in the district now has digital devices for every student, and the district increased remote instruction support for teachers. Its new Skyline curriculum is standards-based and culturally responsive and available to schools districtwide. Skyline can help “combat some of this variation in terms of access to digital curriculum,” she adds.
But there’s still much work to be done.
The pandemic deepened pre-existing gaps for Black and Latino CPS students. During the 2020-21 school year, only 5.6% of Black and 11% of Latino students met the statewide math standardized testing benchmark, compared with 43% of their white peers and 53.3% of their Asian peers. School officials presented those findings, based on Illinois Assessment of Readiness test results, during the August Chicago Board of Education meeting.
Student test scores sank nationally as well. Reading and math scores of 9-year-old students across the U.S. on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation’s report card and considered a gold standard in testing, declined during the past two years of the pandemic. Math scores dropped from an average score of 241 in 2020 to 234 in 2022, a 2.9% decline. Reading scores went from 220 in 2020 to 215 in 2022, a 2.3% drop.
In another nationwide evaluation of the test score data of 8.3 million students, researchers found that young people are starting to regain the learning that they lost between the 2019-20 and the 2020-21 school years, according to a July report by NWEA, a nonprofit testing organization. Yet student achievement in the 2021-22 school year was still weaker than pre-pandemic periods, and those gaps are larger for Black and Latino students and those in high-poverty schools, which are defined as schools where more than 75% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
While standardized tests aren’t the only predictor of academic success, experts say time is of the essence to get students the support that they need to get back on track.
“The issues range from mental health to too many students falling academically behind,” says Penny Pritzker, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce who is at the helm of widening education and workforce opportunities for Chicago’s Black and Brown communities through her foundation and organizations like P33. “But it’s not just a Chicago problem. . . .This is a problem for all of us, not just for individuals. It’s a problem for our communities.”
If school systems and communities don’t take steps to address the learning that was lost during COVID, members of this generation of U.S. students stand to earn $49,000 to $61,000 less over their lifetimes due to the pandemic, according to an article by McKinsey.
“As school districts are trying to recover, they’re needing to do two things: They’re needing to help students catch up from the impact of a pandemic,” says Emma Dorn, education senior knowledge expert at McKinsey and co-author of the article. “But they also need to continue to be thinking about, ‘How do we tackle some of those pre-existing equity gaps as well?’ “
Those pre-existing equity gaps intersect with Chicago’s segregated history.
During the Great Migration in the 20th century, many of the 6 million African Americans who left the South settled in Chicago. Often they were relegated to live in defined areas, hemmed in by discriminatory housing policies and even violence.
Segregation restricted not only where Black Chicagoans could put down roots but also where they could attend school. When the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education ruled that racial segregation in public education was unconstitutional, many students largely remained racially separated. In Chicago, former Superintendent Benjamin Willis was seen as the force that prevented Black children, many of whom were in overcrowded schools in the 1960s, from enrolling in majority-white schools that had more space and resources.
In the last decade, CPS has made strides in graduation rates and standardized testing. By 2018, the district’s 78.2% graduation rate had risen significantly above the 2011 rate of 56.9%. Yet amid that bright spot, enrollment declined in many predominantly Black neighborhood schools, leading to the closing of 49 elementary schools and one high school program in 2013. A 2021 report conducted by Kids First Chicago, a nonprofit organization, cited a combination of lower birth rates and Black residents leaving the city because of the loss of industrial jobs and affordable housing as reasons for the enrollment drop.
Dwindling enrollment also affects school funding, which results in fewer resources like pre-college offerings, enrichment programs and counseling services.
But now, it seems, the pandemic has given CPS a chance to make substantive changes that will provide “a high-quality public education for every child, in every neighborhood, that prepares each for success in college, career and civic life.” That’s the basis of CPS’ three-year blueprint and other initiatives that aim to re-engage students and address achievement gaps. Efforts will include strengthening neighborhood schools, improving services for students with diverse learning needs, widening mental health services and increasing career and technical education opportunities.
Two weeks into the school year, CPS announced it will start offering Mad Science STEM enrichment workshops to qualifying elementary schools as an out-of-school-time option.
But school interventions are only part of the post-pandemic solution toward closing the achievement gap.
“The pandemic really exposed the high level of the digital divide that exists in Black and Brown communities,” says Venise Hardy, vice president of educational services at Ada S. McKinley Community Services, a nonprofit provider of academic and mentorship support to Chicago middle and high schoolers.
Hardy says many students didn’t have adequate high-speed internet at home that’s essential for remote learning. As a response, the district launched Chicago Connected to provide eligible students high-speed internet and hot spots at no cost. Philanthropists like Ken Griffin and foundations, including Penny Pritzker’s, underwrote the program.
Hardy also points to the personal struggles she sees among students, which go beyond completing classroom work. Some CPS students couldn’t find a quiet and private space to tune in to online learning. Others struggled to log in on time for classes because they shared devices with siblings.
“The pandemic really exposed the high level of the digital divide that exists in Black and Brown communities,” says Venise Hardy, vice president of educational services at Ada S. McKinley Community Services, a nonprofit provider of academic and mentorship support.
“I needed to educate myself on how to navigate Google Classroom,” says Lilia Guevara, a mom of three in McKinley Park, about the online platform that her kids used to submit their assignments. “I didn’t know how to help them. . . .It was very overwhelming and stressful.”
Technology setbacks weren’t the only challenges. Hardy notes that many of the students that Ada S. McKinley serves also assumed child care duties at home or helped their families financially. Parents who lost work or wages “are leaning on them heavily.”
Antoine Kitchen struggled to keep up with school remotely while he was a student at CPS’ Edward Tilden Career Community Academy High School in the Fuller Park neighborhood on the city’s South Side. His mom had to return to work after giving birth to his baby sister and needed him to babysit. As the pandemic progressed, home and child care responsibilities began to pile up for the teenager. “To be honest, I really couldn’t manage it,” he says.
When it was time to return to in-person learning for his senior year last fall, Kitchen decided to move out of his mother’s home on the South Side so he could focus on completing high school.
The 18-year-old graduated in the spring and is now enrolled at Harold Washington College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago system. Kitchen credits guidance counselors and teachers at Tilden for giving him the support that he needed to graduate.
Antoine Kitchen credits guidance counselors and teachers at Edward Tilden Career Community Academy High School for giving him the support he needed to graduate.
But some parents and students feel that their teachers or school administration didn’t give them enough support during the pandemic.
Yarbrough, the South Side mom, wished she had a more assertive response from her son’s school and teacher when she brought up his flagging grades. “I didn’t feel like we were on the same team,” Yarbrough says.
This led her to transfer Josiah in fall 2020 to St. John de la Salle Catholic Academy, where she has seen him flourish. He has access to more extracurricular activities, she says, like a Saturday STEM program, and is now a recess monitor on the playground.
“There should still be something in place to address the social-emotional side that was taken from them as well,” Yarbrough says. “And I saw that at St. John with Josiah there. I didn’t see that at CPS where my daughter remained.”
This fall her daughter, Jocelyn, an incoming fourth grader, will join her older brother at St. John.
Chicago Public Schools enrollment continues to fall. Last October saw a 3% decline from the previous year, bringing enrollment in the country’s third-largest district to 330,411 students, according to a CPS 2021 press release.
The district’s first day attendance bounced back to around pre-pandemic levels as 93.4% of enrolled students were present for the first day of school on Aug. 22, according to the district.
“Let’s face it: We have seen enrollment declines over the past decade. We have under-enrolled schools,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said during a City Club of Chicago event in August. “I see it as an opportunity . . . an opportunity to create innovative school models.”
Martinez described one such potential model: a high school serving 500 or so students that offers college credits toward an associate degree and is aligned with a career pathway, such as aviation or cybersecurity.
Bolstering existing CPS career pathway programs and creating new ones would create additional postsecondary opportunities, particularly for its most disadvantaged students.
The We Will Chicago plan, rolled out in July by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, notes that “with approximately two-thirds of Illinois jobs reportedly requiring at least some postsecondary schooling or special training, formal education is a key predictor for an individual’s income potential.”
Several programs that prepare individuals for livable-wage jobs without obtaining a four-year degree already exist. Some partner with CPS and City Colleges of Chicago, and others are run by local companies. There’s Aon’s two-year apprenticeship program, which has onboarded more than 200 apprentices since 2017. Another is the ComEd Construct Infrastructure Academy, which graduated 69 participants in the spring. Over 70% of its graduates are placed into jobs, and 95% of this year’s graduates were people of color, according to the program.
CPS and other entities are launching initiatives to address academic gaps and revive engagement. The district’s $25 million tutoring program is more than three times the amount CPS spent on the initiative in the previous school year. The increase in funding allows CPS’ tutoring corps program to expand to about 240 schools, with 760 tutors providing high-dosage tutoring in reading and math.
A University of Chicago Education Lab study last year found promising results when CPS ninth and 10th graders were given two-on-one math instruction every day for about 45 minutes. The tutoring model increased grades and reduced failure rates in math and non-math courses.
While rigorous tutoring and remediation are important, fostering an engaging environment for students is also key.
Elaine Allensworth, the Lewis-Sebring Director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, thinks that schools and educators should also pay close attention to absenteeism and grades, which indicate engagement. “If a student is not coming to class, if they’re not getting good grades, (then) they’re probably not getting something that they need,” she says.
In its 2023 budget, CPS increased its art and dual-language offerings and expanded its universal pre-K program. More funding for after-school and summer programs is in the works. The district also increased the budget by $9 million for its Choose to Change program, which supports young people who are affected by violence and trauma and struggle with absenteeism.
A concerted effort by the city, public school system, community organizations and families is imperative for preparing students to one day support themselves. But for some families, too much is at stake to wait on systemic change to happen.
Now that Yarbrough’s children are in private school, she says, “I feel like we’re planting a good seed and we’re on good ground right now. And I see the best for them.”
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