Back to school in Chicago Public Schools

Back to school in Chicago Public Schools

Chicago Public Schools students return to class Aug. 21. Take a look at the state of district proficiency, building utilization, enrollment, student-teacher ratios, absenteeism and finances.

Thousands of Chicago Public Schools students will return to school on Aug. 21. Many students will return to buildings with mostly empty seats and few students meeting grade level standards.

Take a look at how the district is faring and what students can expect as they return to classrooms. Here’s a hint: poor proficiency, fewer students and increased spending.

Proficiency in CPS

The most recent test scores available for CPS students shows few students are meeting grade level standards in the core subjects of reading and math.

Among third through eighth grade students districtwide, just 20% can read at grade level and 15% can perform math proficiently. Chicago students on average are scoring about 10 percentage points below the state average in reading and math.

Among 11th grade students, whose scores on the SAT measure proficiency for high school students, only 21% can read or do math at grade level. On average, Chicago 11th grade students scored 9 percentage points below the state average in reading and 8 percentage points lower in math.

Districtwide, there were many schools where no students in some grades could read or perform math at grade level.

In 2022, there were 50 CPS schools in which no fourth-grade students scored at grade level in either reading or math. There were also 50 schools in which no fifth-grade students scored at grade level.

Near empty spaces

The use of CPS school buildings varied between near-empty occupancy to overcrowded in the 2022-2023 school year. One-third of school buildings were less than half-full and more than half of schools were labeled “underutilized,” meaning less than 77% of ideal capacity for elementary schools and less than 80% for high schools. Five percent of schools were overcrowded.

Only 180 Chicago public schools – or 35% – used their space efficiently in the 2022-2023 school year while 290 schools were underutilized, and 25 schools were overcrowded.

Among the least utilized schools, the five most empty are at less than 11% capacity and at most 8% of their students are proficient in reading and 4% in math.

School capacity appears to matter, with the most underused schools showing abysmal scores compared to the most overcrowded schools all recording higher scores.

Enrollment and student-teacher ratios

There were 322,106 students enrolled at the start of the 2022-2023 school year. That is a drop of more than 39,000 students during the last five school years, according to the enrollment data CPS filed on its 20th day of school.

As the number of students in CPS declines, student-teacher ratios have improved. In the 2021-2022 school year, the most recent available data, the student-teacher ratio for elementary students was 19-to-1. Among high school students, the ratio is higher at 20-to-1.

Five school years ago in the 2018-2019 school year, which is also the final full school year prior to COVID-19 school closures, the elementary and high school student-teacher ratio was 22-to-1. While CPS’ student teacher ratio has improved, proficiency has worsened.

CPS has a higher student-teacher ratio than the state average which is 17-to-1 for elementary students and 18-to-1 for high school students in the 2021-2022 school year.

While the district has recorded improved student-teacher ratios in recent years, there remain many unfilled teaching positions in CPS. There are 1,024 unfilled teacher positions in CPS waiting to be filled for the 2023-2024 school year as of Aug. 15. Additionally, there are 616 unfilled paraprofessional positions in the district.

Students skipping school

Chronic absenteeism in Chicago Public Schools is on the rise: nearly 45% of students were chronically absent in 2022, meaning they missed 10% or more of their school days with or without a valid excuse. That compares to a statewide rate of 30%.

The rate is even higher among Chicago’s low-income students, with 49% reported as chronically absent.

Absenteeism in CPS was 24% for all students and just over 25% for low-income students in 2019, the final full school year before the pandemic shut down in-person learning in CPS schools.

More and more money

CPS is operating on larger and larger budgets each year, despite schooling fewer and fewer students and manifesting worsening proficiency. The operating budget for fiscal year 2024, which covers day-to-day expenses on staff, contracts, and other regular costs for the upcoming 2023-2024 school year, is near $8.5 billion, according to CPS data.

A look at the budget during the past five school years and going into the upcoming 2023-2024 school year shows CPS’ trend with the operating budget increasing each year.

According to CPS, the fiscal year 2024 revenue budget and budgets starting in fiscal year 2020 include aid packages from the federal government in response to the pandemic through the passage of ESSER I, II, and III, resulting in a historic level of federal funding to CPS. Beginning in FY 2020, “federal aid packages have resulted in allocations totaling $2.8 billion,” according to CPS.

Looking ahead

As the new school year begins, leaders at Chicago Public Schools should be looking to address these critical issues of low proficiency, underutilized buildings and more. It is necessary to better allocate financial resources so students can thrive.

The Chicago School Board leaders should be looking to address facility utilization and prioritize coming up with better district staffing models and resource allocation to make better use of the buildings that sit empty and allow educators and school staff to prioritize student learning.

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