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School closures, COVID spending, gun violence: 12 of Chalkbeat Chicago’s top stories of 2022

A student holds a yellow #2 pencil in the air above a desk.

It’s been a tumultuous and uncertain year for public schools in Chicago and Illinois. But there have also been moments of joy and resilience. Here are a dozen of Chalkbeat Chicago’s top stories of 2022.

Jamie Kelter Davis for Chalkbeat

The past year started much like the previous two years for students, parents, and educators in Illinois: tumultuous and uncertain. 

In January, a clash over COVID safety measures between Chicago Public Schools, its teachers union, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot led to five days of canceled classes. The remainder of the school year was marred by staffing shortages, stubborn transportation issues, and budget-related layoffs that were met with criticism from people arguing that students needed more staff, not less to help them recover from the pandemic. 

The ebb and flow of COVID quarantines crimped efforts to boost student attendance and contributed to high absenteeism rates. Legal challenges prompted school districts across the state to lift mask mandates and eventually, other COVID mitigations in schools were relaxed

When students returned this fall, students, parents, and school leaders expressed cautious optimism. But a decade-long trend of enrollment losses continued in Chicago Public Schools, and the district lost its title as the nation’s third largest school district.  By October, parents and educators had a clearer picture of the educational fallout from remote learning and COVID-19 when national and state test results showed a steep drop in reading and math — wiping out a decade of progress. 

As we approach the end of 2022 and look ahead to 2023, here are some of the biggest education stories we covered this past year: 

January: How Chicago schools became an outlier in the latest COVID disruption

The abrupt cancellation of classes for five days after returning from winter break grabbed headlines in January — with parents, students, and teachers wondering nightly if and when classes would resume. But after the dust settled, reporter Mila Koumpilova dug into what happened behind the scenes, the logistical realities, and the political drama that played out.  This story is worth a reread — especially as the 2023 mayoral election looms.  

February: Free college for 4,000 students and their parents: ‘This means so much’

The tragic shooting outside Benito Juarez Community Academy has rocked the Pilsen high school in recent days. But in February, the entire senior class — and their parents — were awarded full college scholarships covering tuition, room and board, books, and fees at 20 Illinois institutions. The giveaway from Hope Chicago, a nonprofit run by former Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, went to 4,000 students at five separate high schools.  “This is going to open the door to this generation, a generation of immigrants, and future generations,” Maria Vazquez, then a senior at Juarez, told Chalkbeat’s Mauricio Peña.

March: Inside a Chicago high school’s year of uncertainty 

Last school year was supposed to be a time to reinvent public education for students across Chicago and the country.  But at Richards Career Academy — and countless other schools — the push to re-engage students with innovative new approaches to learning collided with the need to “just make it through another trying week.” This vivid portrait from inside one of the city’s public neighborhood high schools illustrates the challenges and small victories of a recovery year that never was. 

April: Which education bills made it through the Illinois legislature?

Before election season was in full swing, Gov. J. B. Pritzker and the state legislature passed several new laws — and debated dozens of others — that would have an impact on public education throughout the state. Chalkbeat Chicago’s state education reporter Samantha Smylie tracked the ins-and-outs of policy-making in real time and then compiled a recap of what went down in Springfield. The list also includes bills that didn’t make it to the Governor’s desk, such as the “Right to Read Act,” which would set literacy standards for the youngest learners. But it’s possible those reemerge in 2023. 

May: Chicago’s Virtual Academy will return this fall, but little is known after its first year: ‘It’s been a black box.’ 

Though Chicago Public Schools had returned to in-person learning last year, the district continued to offer a virtual option to medically fragile students. As Mauricio Peña reported, advocates and parents had concerns about curriculum, support for English language learners, and meeting the needs of students with disabilities. The Chicago Virtual Academy is now in its second year and currently serves 413 students, a district spokesperson said.  The school now uses the universal digital Skyline curriculum, launched in 2021, and has a long list of support staff for students with disabilities. More than 1,200 high school students are also taking Advanced Placement and dual credit courses through the Virtual Academy, according to the district. 

June: ‘Ignore the negativity’: 16 Chicago valedictorians on finishing high school in the COVID era 

Chicago’s graduating seniors were in their sophomore year of high school when schools shuttered in 2020. Despite the uncertainty and upheaval of their pivotal high school years, the Class of 2022 earned their diplomas and got to walk across the stage in June. They reflect in this piece on their experiences of going to school during the COVID era.

July: After Highland Park shooting, local schools became healing centers to help grieving community 

What started as a joyful, patriotic summer celebration turned into a tragic mass shooting that thrust an otherwise quiet Chicago suburb into the national spotlight. Though classes were not in session, Highland Park’s public schools transformed into local healing centers for the community about 45 minutes north of downtown. School staff and students offered support and mental health services to anyone who needed it. 

August: In Chicago and other urban districts, a new embrace of career and technical programs 

As a new school year began, district CEO Pedro Martinez unveiled some details of a three-year blueprint he hopes will help Chicago students bounce back from the pandemic. One key element of that plan is a revitalization of its career education programs. This deep-dive, two-part series examines why some students still lack access to career programs and probes the limited data on student outcomes. Plus, a bonus look at what Chicago might learn from Nashville

September: Can Chicago revitalize its tiny high schools? 

Chicago’s decade-long decline in enrollment has undoubtedly hit neighborhood high schools the hardest. In fact, enrollment drops in grades nine through 12 are happening almost exclusively at schools with fewer than 250 students. This phenomenon has been written about since 2011 – and again year, after year, after year, after year.  Though the problem seems to be intractable, fresh eyes are looking for creative solutions, including transforming these shrinking high schools into career academies, community hubs, or incubators for democracy.  With a moratorium on school closures in place until 2025, CEO Martinez might have plans for 2023. 

October: Illinois uses federal COVID money to expand high-impact tutoring  &  At some high-poverty Illinois districts, a slower pace in spending federal COVID relief 

With a historic amount of federal funding flowing into Illinois schools, officials have a chance to dramatically impact public education. One of the key elements of the state’s plan for using those federal COVID recovery dollars is the Illinois Tutoring Initiative. It intends to reach 3,000 students across 72 districts. As for how school districts are spending their federal money? It’s been slow, a Chalkbeat and Better Government Association analysis found. Spending in high-poverty districts, particularly those in Chicago’s south suburbs, stand out for how little they’ve used. Now, the state has a dashboard where people can track the spending

November: How high school students in Chicago’s Little Village are giving back by tutoring  

While the state is ramping up its massive high-impact tutoring program, one school on Chicago’s Southwest side is growing its own tutors. Every Thursday at Infinity Math, Science & Technology High School, upperclassmen volunteer to help underclassmen catch up on their studies. This heartwarming story shows how Little Village teens are “not giving in to the stereotypes,” said Infinity senior Lisett Avalos. “We are going above and beyond.”

December: Chicago Public Schools says it now has a computer for each student. But the hard work is just beginning.

Chicago Public Schools saw a historic investment in technology thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and federal dollars. This Chalkbeat and WBEZ investigation found that the district has struggled to keep track of its inventory of laptops, iPads, and other devices. It also lacks a cohesive plan for using the new devices to accelerate learning. This story goes deep into how Chicago schools went from device disparities to having more laptops and iPads than they know what to do with — at a time of “PTSD with the screens.”  

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at mkoumpilova@chalkbeat.org.   

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org

Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at bvevea@chalkbeat.org

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