In Chicago, classrooms without teachers

Chicago students returned to schools this week, but some 700 classrooms were a teacher short, a perennial problem. Chicago Public Schools said its 3.3% vacancy rate on the first day  was down compared with the previous two years, a sign of progress.

Students in special education classes encountered a vacancy rate double that. The district said it needed 294 more special education teachers, a vacancy rate of 7%. 

Chicago isn’t the only district wrestling with staffing issues. Statewide, there’s an ongoing conversation about how to recruit and retain talented teachers, particularly in hard-to-staff subjects such as bilingual education and special education. Rural districts downstate tend to have more chronic shortages across more areas, spurring the state to take action this year, such as raising the minimum wage for teachers and eliminating a basic skills test for licensing. 

Staffing in schools has surfaced as an issue in Chicago’s contract negotiations with its teachers union, too. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson have pledged to fill hundreds more support staff positions for schools; the union, meanwhile, wants a guarantee put in writing in its contract. Facing chronic shortages of critical positions such as nurses and social workers, Chicago Public Schools has said that it is working to broaden the field of candidates by covering tuition for some registered nurses and social workers to earn credentials to work in schools. 

We’re Cassie Walker Burke, Adeshina Emmanuel, and Yana Kunichoff, and we’re rounding up Chicago public education news for the week. How’d your first week back to school go? Tell us at And, as always, follow us on Twitter @chalkbeatCHI. 

Week in review 

Back to school with fanfare: More than 400 freshmen started the school year Tuesday at the new $85 million Englewood STEM High School, the only new district-run school to open this year. Chalkbeat paid the campus a visit in the days leading up to the grand opening. 

A three-part tour: Chicago’s mayor started off the first day of school at the new STEM High School, then touched down at two other campuses in a tour that highlighted some of her education priorities, Chalkbeat reported.

New year, new hopes: What’s on your wishlist this school year, Chalkbeat asked parents, students, and educators. Here’s what they said.

“Something has gone wrong:” After months of speculation about how Chicago would redistribute nearly $200 million it spends on educating low-income children under age 5, the city has released the list of winners and losers among care providers. But some longtime advocates and center directors are questioning the process. Chalkbeat looked at the latest wrinkle in the city’s universal pre-K rollout. 

A pre-K to 14 system: In Chicago, the mayor oversees the public school district and the City College system. But efforts to bridge them may not always yield best results for students, argues one high school counselor in this first-person column for Chalkbeat. 

Setting a strike date: The teachers union voted unanimously this week to hold a strike authorization vote on Sept. 26 and said city teachers could walk out as soon as Oct. 7. Chalkbeat had the mayor’s response. 

Nursing talks: In an effort to avert a strike, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s negotiating team offered to end the outsourcing of nursing and other support staff jobs in Chicago Public Schools, the Sun-Times reported. 

Back to school but still homeless: More than 16,450 Chicago Public Schools students didn’t have a permanent home during the 2018-19 school year, according to numbers released this week by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The Tribune looked at the implications for schools. 

Looking ahead

The application window for Chicago’s selective enrollment high schools is scheduled to open Sept. 30.

The next meeting of the Illinois state school board will be its Sept. 17-18 retreat. The next meeting of Chicago’s Board of Education is Sept. 25.


The Illinois State Board of Education this week announced the finalists for its coveted 2020 Illinois Teacher of the Year award. The winner will be announced at a ceremony on Oct. 19. Finalists include: Tanya Katovich, a chemistry teacher at Hoffman Estates High School in in Palatine; Jennifer C. Leban, a creative technology teacher at Sandburg Middle School in Elmhurst; Eric Combs, a band instructor at Richland County Middle School in Olney; Joe Ruffolo, a physics teacher at West Leyden High School in Northlake; Debra Nicholson, a math teacher at Rich Central High School in Matteson; Tamara Kuper, a math, art, career and life skills teacher at Aviston Elementary School in Aviston; Maggie Moore, a biology teacher at Hononegah Community High School in in Rockton; Helen Brandon, a sixth-grade math and science teacher at Bloomington Junior High in Bloomington; Michael G. Murakami, a seventh-grade math teacher at Whiteside Middle School in Belleville; and Daniel W. Hartman, a fifth-grade teacher at DuBois Elementary School in Springfield. Congrats, all!