It is one thing to tell young children still captive to the demands of
their parents that they must go to school in early August. But its whole
other thing to pull teenagers into school at a time when days are still
long and the beach is still enticing. That was the task for the staff at some of the city’s most struggling high schools. It is one thing to tell young children still captive to the demands of their parents that they must go to school in early August. But its whole other thing to pull teenagers into school at a time when days are still long and the beach is still enticing.

That was the task for the staff at some of the city’s most struggling high schools. On Monday 246 principals kicked off the year, including ones at 20 high schools. Elementary schools have had Track E schedules starting in 2008. But high schools are relatively new to Track E with nine adopting the schedule last year and 20 this year. Among them are Robeson, Dyett, Phillips, Harper and Fenger—schools that have a hard time with attendance during the regularly scheduled year.

This year all schools are under additional pressure to get students in the door and into seats. Faced with a $712 million budget deficit, CPS has tightly controlled the allocation of teachers, who are doled out based on enrollment. Though class sizes did not increase, many principals say they were given lean budgets that forced them to give up counselors and security guards.

And on Friday, officials said that under-enrolled schools will not get to keep any of their teachers. Traditionally, schools were given cushion of one or two teachers. The key day for teacher allocation is the 20th day of school. For Track E schools, it is Sept. 2—the Friday before regularly-scheduled schools start.

Some principals of Track E schools admitted on Monday that they were nervous that they will get an influx of students during the first weeks of September. CPS’ Office of

Communications said it will release Track E first day attendance figures later this week. Chief Executive Officer Jean-Claude Brizard and Mayor Rahm Emanuel initiated a full-out campaign to get students to school on Aug. 8. Ultimately attendance will determine whether their efforts were successful, but many parents and students said they were inundated with information.

At Revere Elementary, parent Cherita Broughton, who has children in 3rd
and 5th grades, says she saw the school’s outreach efforts in the form
of flyers and calls. “They had so many,” she says. 

The prospect of getting more students in September is especially true for high schools. With so many high school options in CPS, some students will hold out to see if they get a last minute seat in a selective enrollment, magnet or charter high school.  

Given what they are facing, principals pulled out all the stops on Monday to draw students in. Fenger Principal Liz Dozier paid a vendor selling water bottles on the street $5 to wear a bright green T-shirt advertising the Fenger’s August 8 start. On the back, it listed the Top 10 reasons to go to Fenger, including No. 1 because Fenger is “What’s Up.”

She and her staff also handed out pluggers and knocked on the doors of nearly every freshman. “We were literally on the streets,” she said.

In addition to letting students know about the early start date, Dozier used the opportunity to try to sell her school to the area’s students, saying that it is a place of critical thinkers and lifelong learners.

Though she didn’t know exact numbers, Dozier said the cafeteria was filled with students. “It looks really promising,” she said of attendance.

Walking in a bit late, senior Terry Johnston said he wasn’t at all upset that he had to go back early. “I miss school,” he said. “I love school. Anyway all you do over the summer is get in trouble.”

Officials at Harper High School also were upbeat about turnout, said Samuel Kidd, who provides support to the principal. Kidd said that during all the lunch periods, the cafeteria seemed full of students, a good gauge as they wait for actual numbers.

Harper kicked off the day with CPS Chief Executive Officer Jean-Claude Brizard and Hip Hop radio station WGCI on hand. WGCI posted signs around the school and Kidd said it was a good way to get students into school.

Kidd said after this week he and the staff will focus on the students projected to attend Harper who haven’t yet showed up. They will call them and visit their homes.

“As long as we can get them in the door one day before the 20th we are good,” Kidd said.

While starting school early keeps teenagers busy, summer also is a more violent time in Chicago. Already, on Monday, police officers were at Harper to talk to deans about an outside incident that recently took place in the neighborhood could potentially creep into the hallways.

Another worry for Kidd was the temperature. The second and third floors of the big old school were steamy, even though Monday was not a particularly hot day. “It is like an oven here,” he said. 

CPS officials did not respond to a request for information on how they will deal with especially hot days.

At Barton Elementary, the principal and teachers showed up to work a week before school started and canvassed the neighborhood getting the word out that the school was switching to Track E.

“We got letters, we got voicemails, they were announcing it almost every day until it was time,” says parent Clark Felae, who has three children at Barton.

Barton principal Frank Gettridge also attended a Back to School picnic sponsored by the alderman. “My teachers and assistant principal were really good about getting out and walking the neighborhood,” he says.

Enrollment at his school was actually higher than it was at this time last year, he says, standing at 613 students compared to 515.

Revere Principal Veronica Thompson says about 320 students are registered at the school so far, and that she expects 30 to 40 more to show up in the coming weeks.

Though cuts were deeper last year, Thompson noted she has some split classes in second through seventh grades – far more than before.

Split classes make it more important to carefully consider class composition based on students’ academic and social strengths and weaknesses, but Thompson said she believes her teachers will be able to manage.

A change in the way that Head Start attendance is calculated also caused problems at Revere, with the number of classes at the school cut from 2 to 1. Teachers were allotted based on the number of students who had registered by June, rather than the number expected to show up later.

“A couple other schools I’ve spoken to have the same issue,” Thompson says, although a number of schools where families tend to register earlier were not affected.

At Edwards Elementary, principal Judith Sauri lamented the loss of an assistant principal position. With nearly 1,500 students, she says, she needs two assistant principals.

Maria Gonzalez, whose 4-year-old son Ramiro Torres started his second year of preschool at Edwards Center for Young Learners, says it was a smooth start to the year for her family as well.

Her son barely talked when he started preschool last year, but became much more verbal after a year of classes.

“Everything went well; he didn’t cry,” Gonzalez says in Spanish, noting that her son got excited as soon as he saw the school and was matter-of-fact about being dropped off.

“He just said, ‘Okay, mommy,’” she notes. “Everything went perfectly.”

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