Standing in front of huge posters listing his promises for the first 100 days of his administration, Mayor Rahm Emanuel checked off a list of tasks he said he would accomplish or get started for schools.

Yet one of the most far-reaching items, one that could lead to savings for the CPS budget on tap to be approved Wednesday, has yet to be accomplished.

Within these first three months, Emanuel pledged—and on Monday, checked off that he had done so—to complete a facilities plan for CPS. Such a facilities plan would most likely identify the district’s under-used schools and help direct officials as they determine which schools should be closed.

Closing schools saves big money. For example, the previous administration decided to consolidate Logandale and Avondale schools to save CPS more than $2.6 million next year, according to the CPS 2012 budget.

Asked about the facilities plan, Emanuel said the district has just hired someone to undertake the process of completing it. “We have some schools that are under-utilized and some that are overcrowded,” he said. “Our resources are misaligned.” 

CPS Spokeswoman Becky Carroll said that later this week the district will announce who they hired to be the Chief Portfolio Officer and the Chief Community and Parental Engagement Officer–two newly created executive positions designed to point to the district’s new priorities.

The chief portfolio officer’s job will be to make sure there are good schools in every community—and likely, which schools are no longer needed.

On Monday, Emanuel said that the district has never accomplished the task of figuring out what schools are needed. That isn’t exactly true. Just last year, CPS put out the 2010-2011 elementary school space utilization report, which showed that 157 elementary schools were only half-full.

But closing schools is politically unpopular and would have been difficult for Emanuel to do, considering that he just took office in May, as students and teachers were wrapping up a school year. A new state law, signed by Quinn this past Saturday, requires CPS to do a comprehensive facilities plan and to announce which schools they plan to shutter by December 1.

Lots of attention to education

Still, in his short time in office, Emanuel has focused significant attention on schools. Repeatedly, he said on Monday that creating a strong school system was at the top of his priority list.

“When a child is cheated on education,” he said, “they can’t do it again.”

The most specific action Emanuel has taken is to get the state Legislature to approve a bill that will allow him to unilaterally extend the school day. The CPS administration now must figure out the details, including how to get teachers to work that extra time without paying them additional money that the system doesn’t have.

Last week, Emanuel also announced that the district was going to offer bonuses for principals who exceed performance benchmarks set for them. The bonuses will be paid for by the Education Innovation Fund, for which Emanuel has already started raising cash ($5 million has been secured so far). CPS will form a tighter relationship with a group of chosen principal preparation programs and will require them to offer long-residency programs for principals.

The other school-related items on Emanuel’s 100-day list were those for which he said he was going to get the ball rolling, and he and his administration did that.

For example, Emanuel has talked a lot about parental involvement, saying the most important door students walk through is the front door of their house. On Monday, he said parent-teacher conferences and report card pickup should be more convenient for parents. 

But as of year, CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard has just had discussions with parents about what they would want to see in a contract.

Emanuel also promised to identify a leadership structure to facilitate development of a high school strategy. CPS has overhauled its area offices, but nothing has specifically happened for high schools, which have struggled for a while.

Another of Emanuel’s promises was to make sure that the immigrant youth had access to opportunities, including scholarships and financial aid for college. To that end, he opened the Office of New Americans. 

Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, says that Emanuel’s announcement of an Office of New Americans is a step in the right direction. But, she says, the mayor hasn’t yet laid out what resources he will devote to the office or even how many people will work in it.

“Whether it’s going to provide (information to immigrants) or coordinate with all the different agencies, it’s more than a one-person job,” Puente says. “There are a lot of things that can be done to improve services to immigrants across the city… that are more than just about outreach and referral.”

For instance, she says, the City Colleges could evaluate how effectively they serve immigrants and city departments could evaluate whether they have bilingual staff who speak the most common foreign languages “at key entry points into the city’s service system.”

“The creation of the office is a good symbolic gesture,” she says. “The office will require resources to fulfill the promise of what Mayor Emanuel has committed to. Until we see that it’s a question mark.”

She is more heartened by the attention Emanuel is paying to early childhood education. He has convened a task force on the issue to look at resource allocation (such as the number of child care, Head Start and Preschool for All slots in each neighborhood), aligning the programs, measuring their outcomes, and parent engagement.

The transition plan says that the group will try to make it easier to navigate the city’s maze of early childhood programs, and also make curriculum more consistent across different settings. But task force work groups haven’t yet come up with concrete policy recommendations, Puente says.

“We just hope that’s a reflection of attention these issues will continue to get in his administration,” she says.

In talking about past efforts to reform the school system, Emanuel said he wouldn’t call them a failure, but he also wouldn’t call them a success. Yet he wanted to make sure that voters knew he was making good on his promises to reform the system.

“Too often politicians make promises and never follow up on them,” he said.    

Headshot of Sarah Karp

Sarah Karp

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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