From Englewood to Old Town, Chicago mayor’s first-day tour of schools spotlights her priorities

On the first day of school, Zulayka Montarez was picking up her children from a district-run school that has won her loyalty by offering her children an exciting opportunity: the chance to learn Spanish, her native language. Salazar Elementary Bilingual Center, an open-enrollment school in the Old Town neighborhood, offered bilingual services and hard-working staff that loved her kids, said Montarez, a native Spanish speaker. 

“I want to keep it going — I want my kids to know both languages,” said Montarez, who lives a mile away from the school. “It’s very important.” 

Salazar was the second of three stops on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s mostly laudatory back-to-school tour, with the press in tow. In the morning, Lightfoot attended a ribbon cutting at the new Englewood STEM High School, and after Salazar, she went to a rally for district workers who stand along school commute routes to help ensure students’ safety. 

Together, the three stops highlighted the mayor’s education priorities. Englewood STEM, the only new high school Chicago opened this year, reflects her promise to invest in neighborhood schools that serve low-income communities. Salazar received a portion of the district’s $820 million in capital funds. And public safety has been a key Lightfoot priority. 

“Are you the full mayor of Chicago?” one third grader asked Lightfoot as she entered his classroom at Salazar on Tuesday trailed by a clatter of TV news cameras and press aides, along with schools chief Janice Jackson and Deputy Mayor For Education Sybil Madison

Lightfoot’s first-day-of-school tour conveyed part of her message to Chicago families. In an e-mail sent to Chicago parents on Tuesday, the mayor touted her promise to add hundreds of social workers and aides in the next five years, and claimed the district was on a positive course. 

“Much work remains to be done, but I know that CPS is on a trajectory of success, and I invite you to be a part of it,” Lightfoot wrote in her letter. 

At Salazar, parents said they appreciated the district’s investment in their school.

Sharese Scott, a parent of two Salazar students, said she she was excited that her children would learn Spanish. 

“I don’t have any concerns about the school, I actually love it,” Scott said. 

Scott said she particularly appreciates Salazar’s teachers. In fact, as educators started the first day of school without a contract, most parents Chalkbeat spoke with on Tuesday expressed support for teachers. 

“The teachers, they talk to you, they are real concerned with the students,” Scott said. As she talked during after-school pick-up on Tuesday, several teachers, supervising students as they left the building, came by to check in on her children and how they had fared on their first day.

“They are the parent away from home, so I believe that they should be paid more because they have to do a lot,” she said. 

Montarez agreed. Teachers “should keep going and keep trying their best — I support them all the way,” she said. “It is a lot of work educating our children every day.”  

She hopes teachers can help her sixth grader keep her grades up. Montarez’s daughter had always gotten mostly straight A’s but with a B sprinkled in. This year, Montarez is hoping for a row of straight A’s.