First day of school: Chicago Public Schools reopens under a new era of leadership

Chicago Public Schools is officially back in session.

Mayor Brandon Johnson, the first Chicago mayor in recent history to send his children to public schools, kicked off the first day of classes by joining educators, Chicago Public Schools officials, and Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates outside Beidler Elementary School on the West Side. 

Under a sweltering sun at 8:30 a.m., Johnson greeted parents and children in front of a chorus of reporters and cameras, before ringing the official bell to start the school year. 

As hundreds of thousands of  students went back to class across Chicago, the district is facing a number of challenges for the new school year. Those include ensuring timely and reliable bus transportation, grappling with enrollment shifts, and serving immigrant students. 

In many ways, the mayor’s visit to Beidler represents the changes that have come along with his mayoralty. His appearance with Davis Gates was symbolic of a union-friendly mayor who came up through the CTU’s ranks; on past first days of school, union and City Hall officials would make separate visits.

And Beidler seemed symbolic of some of the issues that lie ahead for Johnson. Union officials pointed out that Beidler narrowly escaped closure about a decade ago. The school is now part of a program Johnson wishes to expand: the Sustainable Community Schools initiative, which aims to provide wraparound services and more programming for students and families. 

But Beidler is among several other schools in the program that have lost at least a quarter of its enrollment since the initiative started. 

Fewer students are enrolled in Chicago Public Schools than were a decade ago and it is now the nation’s fourth largest school district. The official enrollment count will not be known until after the 20th day of school in September. Ten years ago, 80,000 more students were enrolled in the district. Chicago’s declining enrollment predated the emergence of COVID-19, but continued during the pandemic. 

For many parents and kids arriving at Beidler Monday morning, more pressing thoughts — like wishing for a great year — were at the forefront. Dondneja Wilson hoped that her daughter, who started preschool, would “grow, and learn, and have fun.” 

“She likes kids a lot, so I feel like that’s going to be her favorite part,” Wilson said.

A woman poses for a photo with her child, who has a bright pink backpack.

Dondneja Wilson and her daughter pose for a picture outside of Beidler Elementary School.

Reema Amin / Chalkbeat

Five-year-old Pierre, who started kindergarten at Beidler and was waiting in line with his father, said he was excited about one thing this school year: “Playing.” 

Last year, data from the last day of school in June obtained by Chalkbeat showed little change in overall enrollment. However, the  number of English learners grew by more than 5,000 students. District officials have pointed to the increase as an approximation of how many migrant students have arrived on buses in the past year. 

Chicago is seeing an influx of newcomers, many of whom are seeking asylum, arriving by bus from the southern border in Texas. 

The number of bilingual teachers in CPS has dipped since 2015, even as the English learner population has grown, according to a recent Chalkbeat analysis. While 6,900 teachers have earned bilingual education endorsements — more than ever before, according to the district — it’s unclear how many are actually assigned to teach bilingual education. 

Educators and immigrant advocates have expressed concerns about whether schools can properly support these new students. Jianan Shi, president of the Board of Education, said the city’s new welcome center for migrant students on the West Side has enrolled “hundreds” of newcomer students. He’s requested more information on the system’s overall strategy for supporting newcomers. 

Outside Beidler, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez told reporters that “the biggest challenge” is ensuring that all newcomers are registered in school, but he said the district is well-positioned to serve them, noting that Chicago has one of the largest bilingual and dual language programs in the nation. About one-fifth of the city’s students are English language learners.

“The challenge we have right now is, again, keeping up with all the new asylum-seekers that are coming in, going to them, making sure that we’re able to register them, assess them,” Martinez said. “But we’re doing that as we speak now.” 

Transportation woes that have plagued the district for the last few years also cropped up on the first day, as parents reported problems with bus routes and trips that took more than an hour.

Laurie Viets, a CPS parent of three children — two of whom have transportation written into an Individualized Education Program — said the district promised to have all transportation issues resolved by last Friday. 

However, Viets found out on Friday that one of her children, a seventh grader, was not going to have transportation and another child, a first-year high school student, would have a long bus route. Today, it took 70 minutes to get to school; it’s normally a 12-minute car ride, Viets said. 

Viets said she wished Chicago Public Schools would have given her more time to prepare for changes in the transportation plans. Now, she won’t have transportation for one of her children for up to two weeks and she is concerned that her other child will be on the bus without air conditioning in extreme heat until they shorten his route.

The district’s bus problems stem back to 2021, the first year back to full-time, in-person school after COVID forced CPS to close buildings in March 2020. Students were left waiting on the first day and beyond for buses that never showed. In emergency mode at that time, the district began offering $1,000 stipends for rideshare services such as Lyft and Uber.  But the transportation troubles continued well into the school year. 

Last year, some 365 students were waiting for bus routes the first week of school and in September, district officials said they were still working to reduce 90-minute rides for some students. 

The district has blamed and continues to point to a nationwide bus driver shortage as causing the transportation troubles. It signed a $4 million contract with a longtime vendor and bus-routing software company to try to fix the issues. 

But last month, on July 31, district officials announced that it would not be able to transport roughly 8,000 students on the first day of school. They offered $500 monthly stipends to families of CPS students with disabilities or those in temporary living situations. Both groups are legally entitled to transportation. The district said at the time that 3,000 students had chosen the stipend option. 

The district has previously increased pay rates for bus driver companies, and is hoping to do so again this year. Martinez said he hopes that will help fill the driver shortage. 

Viets, the parent worrying about her children’s transportation, said more needs to be done.

“Next year, if CPS is going to start by Aug. 21,  by Aug. 1, they should know what the routes are,” said Viets. 

If Chicago finalizes plans the Friday before the start of school, she said, the district is “not giving parents any kind of respect at all. They’re not giving us an opportunity to make other plans when they mess up.”

As Viets noted, the extreme heat also adds to worries about long bus rides. The weather also raised concerns about conditions inside buildings once students arrive.

With temperatures expected to reach 100 degrees this week, Martinez said his team worked “around the clock” to ensure classrooms are equipped with air conditioning this week. Martinez said every classroom has at least a window unit but that hallways are not air-conditioned. 

Reema Amin is a reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Reema at [email protected].

Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at [email protected]

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at [email protected].

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