This Week in CPS: New School Year, New Mayor

Jaws dropped all over the city this morning when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he will not run for re-election. You can watch his full announcement here. (Video starts at 7:34)

Emanuel pointed to schools as a keystone of his legacy to the city. He noted his accomplishments in establishing a plan for universal, full-day pre-K in Chicago by the year 2021, in making full-day kindergarten standard across the city and in extending the school day and year. Emanuel calculated that these changes will add up to nearly four more years of class time for Chicago Public Schools students. “At the end of the day, what matters most in public life is four more years for our children, not four more years for me,” he said.

He also promised to tell his cabinet, “Get ready to sprint to the finish line in May.”

With that in mind, I’d like to offer two suggestions for what he and his team need to do for schools and students in that final sprint. And also a suggestion for his successor.

1. Fix the pre-K enrollment process. I have heard a steady stream of complaints from parents about the cumbersome, non-intuitive process of enrolling kids in preschool. One CPS teacher I know has been so locked out her son will be spending time at his dad’s barbershop until they can work out another solution.

The two biggest challenges appear to be not being able to register at your nearest elementary school and not getting preference for preK at the school where your child’s older siblings attend. It’s unrealistic to force working parents to pick up and drop off children at multiple schools, especially when preschoolers are involved.

2. Strengthen guidance for families around school choice. While the launch of GoCPS, the district’s new common enrollment system, has been a win for families, especially those in the high school hunt, there’s more to do to help families find the right school for their children. Some of this work can be done in-house, by freeing elementary counselors to spend more time helping 7th and 8th graders find the right high school. (CPS has done a lot to shift special education case management away from counselors, but there is still room left to improve.)

But Emanuel could have even more impact here by working with local funders and community organizations to develop independent support for families as they set educational goals and look for schools. Right now, in New Orleans and Boston, EdNavigators are working one-on-one with families to help them find their way. We could use a network of savvy navigators here, too.

As for Emanuel’s successor, his or her wisest course with CPS would likely be to keep current CEO Janice Jackson in place. It took Emanuel a long time to find the right CEO, but Jackson has started off strong. In the wake of scandals that would sink a lesser leader, Jackson has made rapid, positive change. CPS starts the school year with a slew of new policies and procedures in place to better protect students from sexual abuse and a partnership with Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center to provide training for staff and support for children and families facing the trauma of sexual and other forms of abuse.

We know that a revolving door of senior district leadership hurts kids. It weakens institutional memory and whipsaws principals and school leaders. After some very poor choices–most notably Barbara Byrd-Bennett–Emanuel picked a local hero, Janice Jackson, and she’s off to a promising start. Another switch in less than two years would likely do more harm than good.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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