Going To School In Chicago: High Poverty, Short School Days, Crumbling Buildings

Chicago’s public school teachers were on strike for a second day today, continuing a standoff with the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel (D). Negotiations stalled over a handful of issues, including teacher evaluations, the funding of charter schools, and class sizes.

Meanwhile, some 350,000 students are left missing time in the classroom. And a look at the statistics regarding the performance of Chicago students — and the facilities in which they try to learn — shows just how critical it is that the city both invest in new resources and get its teachers back on the job as quickly as possible. Here are the key facts about the conditions students in Chicago currently face:

33 percent of Chicago’s children were in poverty in 2010, versus a rate of 20 percent for Illinois children as a whole; 80 percent of Chicago students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Research suggests the academic achievement gap between children of differing income levels has now far outpaced the gap between back and white children, and income disparities can account for 40 percent or more of the variation in test scores.

Chicago has a shorter school day than the national average for elementary schools, at five hours forty-five minutes (though secondary school days in the district are slightly longer than the national average). Many Chicago students are in class for 10 days less than the national average of 180 days. Emanuel and the teachers negotiated a deal to extend hours and hire hundreds of new teachers to deal with the increased workload. Studies have shown that expanded learning time can provide a significant boost for students, particularly those most likely to fall behind in the classroom.


Chicago scores lower than other big cities on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, with just 20 percent of students performing at “proficient” levels in 2011. 60 percent of students performed at “basic” levels. However, the district has made big strides to improve student achievement since 2003.

— According to CTU, 42 percent of Chicago’s elementary schools lack full funding for arts and music teachers, even though the Dept. of Education called arts and music education “particularly beneficial for students from economically disadvantaged circumstances and those who are at risk of not succeeding in school.” Chicago schools also lack adequate funding and equipment for physical education — only 13 percent of middle school principals reported having enough physical education resources for their students in 2011.

Many of Chicago’s lowest-performing schools are crumbling, but Chicago Public Schools acknowledged last year that it won’t invest in improvement projects for schools it expects to be closed in the next five to 10 years, instead focusing on other schools, including those that share facilities with charter schools. CPS allotted $25 million to six schools that it will no longer control next year, according to the Chicago Tribune, and many of the funds in the city’s capital improvement plan are disproportionately aimed at more affluent schools.