After Years of Failed Education Reforms, Chicago Embraces Community Schools

Photo by Benjamin R.

“Until now, we haven’t even tried to make big-city school districts work, especially for children of color,” Jhoanna Maldonado said when Our Schools asked her to describe what Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and his supporters have in mind for the public school system of the nation’s third-largest city.

Johnson scored a surprising win in the 2023 mayoral election against Paul Vallas, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and education was a key issue in the race, according to multiple newsoutlets. Maldonado is an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which is reported to have “bankrolled” Johnson’s mayoral campaign along with other labor groups, and Johnson is a former middle school teacher and teachers union organizer. What Johnson and his supporters are doing “is transforming our education system,” Maldonado said. There’s evidence the transformation is sorely needed.

For the past two decades, Chicago’s schools experienced a cavalcade of negative stories, including recurring fiscal crisis, financial scandals and mismanagement, a long downward slide in student enrollment, persistent underfunding from the state, the “largest mass closing [of schools] in the nation’s history,” and a seemingly endless conflict between the CPS district administration and CTU.

Yet, there are signs the district may be poised for a rebound.

After experiencing more than 10 years of enrollment declines between 2012 and 2022, losing more than 81,000 students during this period, and dropping from its status as third-largest school district in the nation to fourth in 2022, CPS reported an enrollment increase for the 2023-2024 school year. Graduation rates hit an all-time high in 2022. The number of students being suspended or arrested on school grounds has also declined significantly. And student scores on reading tests, after a sharp decline during the COVID-19 pandemic, have improved faster than most school districts across the country. Math scores have also rebounded, but are more comparable to other improving districts, according to a 2024 Chalkbeat article.

“The people of Chicago have had enormous patience as they’ve witnessed years of failed school improvement efforts,” Maldonado said. “And it has taken years for the community to realize that no one else—not charter school operators or so-called reformers—can do the transformation. We have to do it ourselves.”

“Doing it ourselves” seems to mean rejecting years of policy and governance ideas that have dominated the district, and is what Johnson and his transition committee call, “an era of school reform focused on accountability, high stakes testing, austere budgets, and zero tolerance policies,” in the report, “A Blueprint for Creating a More Just and Vibrant City for All.”

Johnson and his supporters have been slowly changing the district’s basic policy and governance structures. They are attempting to redefine the daily functions of schools and their relationships with families and their surrounding communities by expanding the number of what they refer to as “sustainable community schools.” The CPS schools that have adopted the community schools idea stand at 20 campuses as of 2024, according to CTU. Johnson and his transition committee’s Blueprint report has called for growing the number of schools using the sustainable community schools approach to 50, with the long-term goal of expanding the number of schools to 200.

The call to have more CPS schools adopt the community schools approach aligns with a national trend where several school districts, including big-city districts such as Los Angeles and New York City, are embracing the idea.

Community schools look different in different places because the needs and interests of communities vary, but the basic idea is that schools should address the fundamental causes of academic problems, including student health and well-being. The approach also requires schools to involve students and their families more deeply in school policies and programs and to tap the assets and resources available in the surrounding community to enrich the school.

In Chicago—where most students are non-white, more than 70 percent are economically disadvantaged, and large percentages need support for English language learning and learning disabilities—addressing root causes for academic problems often means bringing specialized staff and programs into the school to provide more academic and non-academic student and family services, often called wraparound supports. The rationale for this is clear.

“If a student is taken care of and feels safe and heard and has caring adults, that student is much more ready to learn,” Jennifer VanderPloeg the project manager of CPS’s Sustainable Community Schools told Our Schools. “If [a student is] carrying around a load of trauma, having a lot of unmet needs, or other things [they’re] worrying about, then [they] don’t have the brain space freed up for algebra. That’s just science,” she said.

“Also important is for students to see themselves in the curriculum and have Black and brown staff members in the school,” said Autumn Berg, director of CPS’s Community Schools Initiative. “All of that matters in determining how a student perceives their surroundings.”

“Community schools are about creating a culture and climate that is healthy, safe, and loving,” said VanderPloeg. “Sure, it would be ideal if parents would be able to attend to all the unmet needs of our students, but that’s just not the system we live in. And community schools help families access these [unmet] needs too.”

Also, according to VanderPloeg, community schools give extra support to teachers by providing them with assistance in all of the things teachers don’t have time to attend to, like helping families find access to basic services and finding grants to support after-school and extracurricular programs.

But while some Chicago educators see the community schools idea as merely a mechanism to add new programs and services to a school’s agenda, others describe it with far more expansive and sweeping language.

“Community schools are an education model rooted in self-determination and equity for Black and brown people,” Jitu Brown told Our Schools. Brown is the national director of Journey for Justice Alliance, a coalition of Black and brown-led grassroots community, youth, and parent organizations in more than 30 cities.

“In the Black community, we have historically been denied the right to engage in creating what we want for our community,” Brown said.

In Chicago, according to Brown, most of the schools serving Black and brown families are struggling because they’ve been led by people who don’t understand the needs of those families. “Class plays a big role in this too,” he said. “The people in charge of our schools have generally been taught to believe they are smarter than the people in the schools they’re leading.”

But in community schools, Brown sees the opportunity to put different voices in charge of Chicago schools.

“The community schools strategy is not just about asking students, parents, and the community for their input,” he said. “It’s about asking for their guidance and leadership.”

It Started with Saving a Neighborhood

Chicago’s journey of embracing the community schools movement has been long in the making, and Brown gets a lot of credit for bringing the idea to the attention of public school advocates in the city.

He achieved much of this notoriety in 2015 by leading a hunger strike to reopen Walter H. Dyett High School in Chicago’s predominantly African American Bronzeville community. Among the demands of the strikers—Brandon Johnson was a participant in the protest when he was a CTU organizer—was for the school to be reopened as a “hub” of what they called “a sustainable community school village,” according to Democracy Now.

The strike received prominent attention in national news outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post.

But Brown’s engagement with the community schools approach started before the fight for Dyett, going back almost two decades when he was a resource coordinator at the South Shore High School of Entrepreneurship, a school created in 2001 when historic South Shore International College Preparatory High School was reorganized into three smaller campuses as part of an education reform effort known as small schools.

Brown was responsible for organizing educators and community members to pool resources and involve organizations in the community to strengthen the struggling school. He could see that the school was being “set up,” in his words, for either closure or takeover by charter school operators.

“School privatization in the form of charter schools was coming to our neighborhood,” he said, “and we needed a stronger offer to engage families in rallying to the school and the surrounding community.”

Brown pushed for the adoption of an approach for transforming schools that reflected a model supported by the National Education Association of full-service community schools.

That approach was based on five pillars that included a challenging and culturally relevant curriculum, wraparound services for addressing students’ health and well-being, high-quality teaching, student-centered school climate, and community and parent engagement. A sixth pillar, calling for shared leadership in school governance, was eventually added.

After engaging in “thousands” of conversations in the surrounding historic Kenwood neighborhood, where former President Barack Obama once lived, Brown said that he came to be persuaded that organizing a school around the grassroots desires of students, parents, teachers, and community members was a powerful alternative to school privatization and other top-down reform efforts that undermine teachers and disenfranchise families.

Brown and his collaborators recognized that the community schools idea was what would turn their vision of a school into a connected system of families, educators, and community working together.

Years later, two things helped propel the community schools movement in Chicago, according to Brown. First, a national coalition of labor unions and grassroots community organizations called the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools was formed in 2013 with the dual purpose of opposing the privatization of public schools and advocating for schools and districts to adopt the community schools approach. Brown’s Journey for Justice Alliance was among the founding organizations of that alliance.

Second, in 2014, Brown saw a successful labor action by teachers in St. Paul, Minnesota, that resulted in the district capitulating to the union’s terms to avoid a strike. The rallying cry that drove the union’s organizing was “bargaining for the common good,” a rhetorical strategy that connected the union’s call for community schools with rising demands from urban neighborhoods of Black and brown families for schools that work for their children.

According to Brown, the first time the implementation of the community schools approach became part of the CTU’s formal contract negotiations was in 2016, when, under the leadership of the late Karen Lewis, former president of CTU, the union staged a one-day walkout in April and threatened a total shut down of district schools in October. In that successful labor action, CTU’s “priorities” called for creating a sustainable community schools program and instituting a cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the district, Education Week reported in October 2016.

After CPS acquiesced to most of the demands made by Brown and his fellow hunger strikers in 2016, Dyett High School reopened as a sustainable community school in a cohort of 19 other schools granted that status.

“We willed Dyett into being reopened,” Brown said. “No one had ever done that.”

But the strikers’ purpose wasn’t just to preserve a high school and its connected feeder schools, according to Brown. It was about something much bigger. It was about saving their neighborhood and other neighborhoods of Black and brown families like theirs.

In 2019, the union’s tough contract negotiations, which included a prolonged strike, resulted in a contract agreement from the district to provide at least $10 million in annual funding for sustainable community schools.

An Alternative to Market-Based Education Reform

Supporters of the community schools movement in Chicago not only see it as a strategy for empowering Black and brown families but also as an effective counter to the rapid expansion of school privatization schemes that have prevailed across the country for the past 20–30 years, particularly, the dramatic growth of charter schools in metropolitan school districts.

“Every city where charters go, there’s been a diminishment of Black people in urban spaces,” Brown said, pointing to not only Chicago, where the Black population has declined by 10 percent, according to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau, even as the number of charter schools has grown, but also to Washington, D.C., a once-majority Black city that has seen that demographic plummet to 41 percent while the charter school industry rapidly expanded. In Oakland, California, which had a 14 percent decline in Black population, based on the 2020 census, the city has transitioned into a charter school “boomtown,” according to KQED.

“Privatization has crippled Black urban communities across the country,” said Brown, as “we increasingly live in cities where we own nothing,” including the privately run charter schools the communities send their children to. He called this explosion of charters “a form of education colonialism.”

This rapid growth in school privatization has gone hand in hand with the spread of policy ideas that educators and public school activists in Chicago and elsewhere refer to as market-based educational reforms.

That approach, as practiced in Chicago, began in the 1990s, according to an analysis by University of Illinois Chicago professor Pauline Lipman, when Illinois state lawmakers gave former Mayor Richard M. Daley sole authority over the district with the power to appoint the district administrator—who was rebranded district CEO—and members of the governing board in 1995.

“Daley and his successor, Rahm Emanuel, generally filled the board with corporate executives, bankers, and investors and appointed corporate-style managers as CEOs,” wrote Lipman. “These mayor-appointed regimes designed a top-down accountability system that applied business methods to public schools and deployed high stakes standardized tests as a metric to close schools and create a market of privately-run charter schools.”

This approach became widely known as the portfolio model, in which school leaders run school districts as if they were Wall Street managers overseeing a portfolio of investments and closely track which investments are successful and which are not and open and close schools based on their performance. Privately-run charter schools are brought into the district to provide market competition to the public schools, and funding “follows the child” to whatever form of school a family happens to choose.

Chicago’s use of the portfolio model “went national,” according to Lipman, in 2002 when, under the George W. Bush administration, Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind legislation and, then again, in 2009 when the Barack Obama administration passed Race to the Top, a program conceived and led by Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who was district CEO of CPS from 2001–2008.

During those years, the portfolio model was picked up by school leaders in big city districts across the nation, including Los AngelesOaklandNew York CityDenver, and Indianapolis.

But if CPS, under Mayor Johnson, is truly embarking on a new era of schooling that replaces market-based thinking with the philosophy of community schools, it will take reworking of policies and structures erected during the years of market-based reform.

In July 2023, Johnson replaced all but one of the appointed members of Chicago’s Board of Education, “bringing in his own allies to oversee the city’s public schools,” according to CBS News.

Then, the district appealed to state lawmakers to allow the local school board to transition to an elected board. Both chambers of the Illinois state legislature approved the change, and Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the new policy into law in March 2024.

Under the new configuration, beginning in January 2025, district governance will change from a seven-member board of education, whose members are all appointed by the mayor, to a hybrid model of 21 members, 10 elected by voters and 11 appointed by the mayor. The first election will be held on November 5, 2024, and Jitu Brown is one of the announced candidates.

Also, the district will end student-based budgeting, a policy that allocates dollars to schools based on the number of enrolled students and assigns “weighted” funds to students who have specific needs, such as learning disabilities.

Instead, CPS aims to fund schools based on having a set number of staff members—for instance, every school would have funding for at least one school counselor. Additional monies would be added to school budgets if they serve higher needs students that may require schools to hire tutors, instructional coaches, support for English language learners, or other types of specialists.

Chicago’s use of student-based budgeting was very much a part of the district’s preference for a system based on school choice, under which education funds would “follow the child” to whatever school they happened to enroll in—public, public magnet, selected enrollment, or charter schools. But, in keeping with the abandonment of market-based policies and the movement toward community schools, Johnson’s appointed board members have announced that they intend to move away from the choice system in favor of a policy emphasizing neighborhood schools, according to reporting by WTTW in December 2023.

‘An Opportunity to Bring Forth the Schools Parents Want’

None of this is to say that Chicago’s rejection of market-based school policy and embrace of community schools will be easy.

Vestiges of the old ways of operating schools are still everywhere—CPS still has an Office of Portfolio Management, for instance.

Despite the recent upswing in enrollment, many schools are still under-enrolled, and some schools in the original cohort of 20 schools that adopted the community schools approach have been “particularly hard hit,” according to Chalkbeat.

Also, Chicago schools are still highly segregated, and a wave of migrant students swamped the district, with more than 36,000 arriving in a year-and-a-half’s time, according to WBEZ Chicago’s March 2024 article.

Funding remains a concern too, as the district is expecting a $391 million deficit for the 2024-2025 school year, and Illinois state lawmakers have fallen woefully short of appropriating the education funding levels through the landmark legislation enacted in 2017.

According to a 2024 analysis by the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, 70 percent of the state’s school districts are getting less education funding from the state than what was mandated by the 2017 law. According to Chalkbeat’s reporting on that analysis, Illinois will not meet the required 2027 deadline to adequately fund the state’s schools and will likely not meet that deadline until 2034 if current funding levels continue.

State funding for CPS also gets hit when the district loses students, especially low-income students, and the value of the city’s property tax base increases, according to Chalkbeat.

Johnson also faces a number of other daunting challenges that have nothing to do with schools but could undermine his education agenda.

Nevertheless, Chicago schools may benefit from adopting the community schools approach despite these challenges.

For instance, when Brighton Park Elementary—which follows the community schools approach—suddenly experienced a large influx of migrant students, it quickly responded with a support group and additional resources to address the physical and mental health needs of the students.

“In some ways, Brighton Park is well-positioned to host this support group,” Chalkbeat reported, because, as a community school, it had an existing partnership with a nonprofit organization, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, which created the support group and provided training “on the model that the support group is based on.”

CTU organizer Maldonado also described how the leadership culture of the district has changed for the better due, in part, to the inclusive leadership practices entailed in the community schools approach.

“Under new leadership,” she said, “the discussion is more collaborative, and the district administration is listening, which wasn’t the case in the past.”

Through its community schools approach “CPS is committed to providing voice and agency to students and families,” said CPS’s Berg. “Community schools are the mechanism to do that. [Students and families] get to participate in seeing what goes into their schools. And when parents and students have more voice in their schools and see [their voices] make a difference, you start to see families being more connected to the school.”

Also, the model ensures “there are more caring adults in the school,” she said, “not just the social worker and the counselor but [everyone] coming together with the families.”

“The city’s leadership tried to do the transformation with charters and realized that those schools are no more effective than the schools they accused of being failures,” Maldonado said. “This is an opportunity to bring forth the schools parents want to have their children in, teachers want to work in, and students need.”

Brown said, “Getting new leadership is critical to improving schools in Chicago, especially for the ones serving Black families.” With Johnson as mayor, he said, Black families now have someone in charge who has been on the right side of the education justice movement.

“Having the community schools approach in place in more schools means Black families now have a structure in place to ensure that schools will listen to them,” he said.

This article was produced by Our Schools.