Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s transition team releases its recommendations for schools

A man in a suit and tie smiles at a lectern while other people stand behind him.
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks at a press conference to release a report with recommendations by his transition committee on July 7, 2023. (Paul Goyette / Courtesy of Chicago Mayor)

Create a paid youth council to guide school decisions. 

Help about 20,000 homeless students find housing. 

Grant full college scholarships to Chicago students looking to become teachers, as a way to cultivate more Black and Latino educators. 

These are just a few of the recommendations made by a transition committee convened by Mayor Brandon Johnson to help set his administration’s priorities. The 223-page document released Thursday includes an ambitious progressive education agenda for the former middle school teacher and union organizer who took office in May.

Two of the mayor’s new appointees to the Chicago Board of Education — its new president, Jianan Shi, and member Michelle Morales — served on a subcommittee that set goals for improving the city’s public schools and other services for children and youth.  

Many of the committee’s recommendations, such as providing affordable housing for student families, echo bargaining table demands and other goals of the Chicago Teachers Union, which helped carry Johnson to victory in this past spring’s mayoral race. The recommendations also include ending district budgeting based partly on campus enrollments, staffing all district schools with librarians and clinicians, and reviewing whether custodial services, which the district outsources to Aramark, should be brought in house. 

Some recommendations reflect more recent goals that educators and in some cases district leaders have laid out. Amid a shift away from a “four-year college for all” mindset in Chicago and elsewhere, the transition report argues that all schools, including International Baccalaureate high schools and middle schools, should offer some trade and vocational programs. 

A few of the recommendations are ones that the district is already pursuing, such as regularly surveying students and staffing counselors in all buildings.

Although the report does not attempt to estimate the cost of the school district transformation it envisions, the recommendations almost certainly involve major new spending. At a time when the district is bracing for more financial uncertainty, the report urges the Johnson administration to aggressively explore new funding sources to pay for a costly agenda that calls for significantly expanding the academic, social-emotional, and other services that schools provide to students.

“This new and holistic approach is more important than ever in a district that continues to see BIPOC students disproportionately impacted by violence, the school to prison pipeline, economic disparities, and dropping enrollment,” the report said.

Here are five messages the transition committee conveyed in its report:

1. Give students more of a voice in their education — and pay them to weigh in

The report calls for creating a permanent youth council, with paid members, to offer input on district decisions. Such a council would resemble an existing advisory body that former Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched, made up of teens who receive a stipend for their service to the mayor’s office. The city should also host regular youth summits and survey students to get feedback on their educational experience, the report argued.

“I am a huge proponent of youth voice,” Morales told reporters this week. “We know that youth who are civically engaged, feel their voices are heard, and feel part of the decision-making at school then feel ownership over their schools.”

The report also suggests paying school board members. That recommendation comes ahead of the city’s transition to an elected school board, and would require a change to state law. The report also suggests changing state law so undocumented residents can serve on Chicago’s elected board. 

2. Rapidly increase the number of full-service community schools to 200

On the campaign trail and since his election, Johnson has vowed to dramatically expand the district’s Sustainable Community Schools program, a partnership with the teachers union in which community-based organizations provide after-school and other wraparound services at 20 schools. The transition committee report echoes that goal — and puts some numbers to it. 

It says the city should aim to expand the program to 50 of the district’s roughly 500 campuses in the near term — and to 200 in the long term, with an eye to eventually having all district schools function as community hubs through partnerships with local nonprofits and other organizations. And, the report says, the district should create a department to oversee that rapid expansion.

3. Provide free Wi-Fi, laptops, and public transit to students

Following widespread complaints about busing amid a national driver shortage, the report says the district must take a close look at how it provides transportation to its students, including bus driver pay and best practices in other districts. The goal is that no child should have to commute longer than 30 minutes. This past school year, some students experienced commutes of more than 90 minutes one way

In the long term, the report says, public transit should be free to all students, and all should receive free computers and access to the internet.

4. Replace federal COVID relief dollars that are running out

The mayor’s education agenda and the recommendations of  the transition committee will require major new investments — at a time when the district faces rising employee pension costs, declining enrollment, and a looming deadline to spend its federal pandemic recovery aid.

The city must figure out how to keep its finances stable as that federal money goes away, the report stresses. Some possibilities: a cannabis tax, donations from major corporations and other businesses, and tax changes to ensure “the wealthy pay their fair share.” And, the report says, the city should reverse a move by Lightfoot to make the district pay millions of dollars in staff pension costs that the city used to cover.

In media interviews this week, Shi and Morales said the new board will do a deep dive into district spending, with an eye on finding possible savings in administrative costs and other expenses.

“We want to dismantle a learning system built on scarcity,” Shi said.  

5. Provide more help for homeless and migrant students

The report charges the mayor’s office with making a plan to find housing for some 20,000 students who don’t have a stable place to live. That’s a goal that the Chicago Teachers Union tried to enshrine in its contract with the district during tense negotiations in 2019 — one that Lightfoot criticized as being outside the district’s scope. 

The transition committee, by contrast, said the task should be a top priority for the new mayor. It suggests looking at  strategies used in other cities, such as Boston, which the report said has gotten involved in the push to secure affordable housing for families. Roughly 1 in 4 Black students experience homelessness while attending school in the district, the report said. 

The district also needs a specific plan with measurable goals for better serving newly arrived migrant students, the report said. Johnson administration officials have said they are planning to open a “welcome center” for newly arrived migrant students at Roberto Clemente Community Academy High School.

The report also suggests granting students and district employees excused absences to attend immigration appointments and formally factoring the language and other needs of migrant students into the city or district budget.

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at mkoumpilova@chalkbeat.org.

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