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Sun-Times Editorial: Emanuel’s first job: Fix Chicago schools

Last Modified: May 16, 2011 02:10AM

Voters in every corner of Chicago chose Rahm Emanuel as their new mayor for two simple reasons:

Emanuel is intensely focused and unapologetically bold.

In the campaign and in the ­run-up to his inauguration, Emanuel burrowed in on three core issues — schools, safety and city finances — and the reforms he pledged are as sweeping and necessary as they are politically unpopular and painful.

Today, the day Emanuel becomes Chicago’s first new mayor in 22 years, we’d like to highlight the one issue that warrants Emanuel’s attention before all else: improving Chicago’s public schools.

Corralling the city’s finances is crucial, never more so than now with a structural budget deficit estimate of at least $1 billion.

And quelling the tinderboxes that threaten countless Chicago neighborhoods is unquestionably a top priority.

But ultimately Chicago will rise and fall based on the quality of its public schools. That is where the city’s violence will begin to end, where future citizens are molded, where a better future for Chicago is born — or not.

Chicagoans are ready for Emanuel to unleash his ­signature intensity and boldness on the task of bettering the city’s schools.

The Chicago Sun-Times editorial page already has endorsed many of Emanuel’s bold plans, including lengthening the ­shamefully short school day, ­establishing more teacher ­training academies and ­overhauling the high schools.

As the months have worn on, Emanuel has refined these plans and added more. His latest ­education agenda, laid out in a four-year blueprint that he released last week, is impressive and far-reaching.

But we urge even greater focus.

With money and time in short supply, the most vitally important reforms must come first. And, it is crucial to say, they must be done in consultation with teachers and parents, not to them.

These reforms include: finding a way to extend Chicago’s five hour and 45 minute elementary school day; moving beyond a suffocating focus on testing toward a greater emphasis on ­promoting quality classroom instruction; expanding early childhood ­education, and making a firm commitment to pour the district’s full weight behind improving failing neighborhood schools, particularly high schools.

One promising effort that is helping neighborhood high schools — the Culture of Calm initiative — must be continued.

This is an anti-violence and social development program designed to help schools deal with the social and emotional issues that needy students bring to school — issues that, left unaddressed, make learning next to impossible.

Now in place in 38 schools, the Culture of Calm appears to be making inroads in increasing attendance and reducing serious misconduct, and it should not be axed or even scaled back just as it’s gaining its footing.

The months ahead will test Emanuel and his strong education team in fundamental ways.

The school system faces a budget deficit of roughly $720 million — a hole that comes after the schools budget already has been pared to the bone. And it faces a formidable opponent in Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who already has put on her proverbial boxing gloves and is prepared to fight for more money for teachers in exchange for working a longer school day and for a fair contract in 2012.

Chicago voters picked Emanuel because he knows how to fight and because he isn’t afraid to go after what he thinks is right.

Let the battle to improve the Chicago Public Schools begin.

Copyright © 2011 — Sun-Times Media, LLC

Chicago Teachers Union