Chicago teacher strike opens dialog on the state of schools to other voices

Chicago teacher strike opens dialog on the state of schools to other voices

Chicago’s public school teachers are walking the picket lines for the second day in their labor dispute with the district. As the negotiations continue, many are hopeful the talks bring about a broader conversation on long-overdue changes for many students.

The daily realities that low-income students face are bleak.

Reports show that many of the city’s 472 elementary schools have no safe place for kids to have recess and teachers have complained that they have upwards of 35 kids in their classes. And in a school district where the Chicago Youth Development Study estimated that 80 percent of innercity teen boys had been exposed to violence, 675 schools have to share 205 social workers, psychologists and school-based counselors.

Various reform measures that brought a bevy of new staff, or closed failing schools altogether, have done little to solve the district’s problems.

And now the teachers and the district are locked in a contract dispute that has put teachers on the picket lines for the first time in 25 years.

In the months leading up to the strike brought a renewed interest in the plight of Chicago’s ailing schools. And with it, no shortage of opinions.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said repeatedly the strike was not the way to solve the district’s problems, and that what is best for Chicago’s students is to “stay in the classroom.”

An op-ed in the Chicago Tribune said that what would be good for students would be to decertify the union.  “Instead of ceding to CTU’s demands, the mayor and the school board should accelerate plans for reform,” Sean Kennedy,a visiting fellow at the Lexington Institute, wrote in his piece to the Tribune.

For its part, the CTU released a report called ‘The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,’ detailing their plans to divert more resources to the neediest schools, consider class size and provide quality school facilities. The ongoing contract negotiations are limited as to what issues they can bargain about, taking things like directly discussing class sizes or the availability of art classes off the table.

But what about the students? What are their thoughts on the strike and even the larger issue of what is needed to improve Chicago schools?  To start the broader dialog, The Chicago Reporter spoke to students at Little Village Social Justice High School, a school on the city’s West Side where 96.3 percent of the students are low-income.

The school was built in 2005 after fourteen parents went on a hunger strike to push for a high school in their community. It was recently in the news over protests against the elimination of three Advanced Placement classes and the firing of two teachers who helped found the school. Those teachers were later rehired.

Here’s what students along the picket line had to say:

Hector Rivera, a 17-year-old senior at Social Justice High School, said it was the duty of Social Justice students to support the teachers. “We have to support them in everything that they are doing because it’s going to benefit us at the end of the day.”

Rivera, a CPS students since he first entered Pre-K, hopes that the strike will also bring others to be more critical of the Board of Education.

“I hope that more students and more parents take into consideration that some decisions that the Board of Education makes are not always correct and hurt us instead of benefiting us. People should look at this as taking a stand for something that’s right. As a person, as a student, as a teacher. Even as a parent.”

Rocio Meza, 17, is a senior who said it’s important for the students to stand together.

“If students aren’t united, people won’t get the facts straight on us. I think that people will think teachers are only striking because they want a higher percentage in raise, but they are also fighting for more art classes, more music classes, more air conditioning and libraries in schools. Teachers are always there for me, and that’s why I’m here for them.”

She also said she thinks the community supports the teachers “but unfortunately because we live in Little Village there is also a language barrier, so the main issues don’t get across into the Spanish-speaking community enough.”

Meza added that she wants her fellow students around the city to know that “it’s not fair for the teachers or for the students to go through this.”

Karen Canales, a 17-year-old senior, was involved in the protests that got two fired teachers reinstated at the high school. She said that teachers were very supportive when the students were doing their sit-in. “They helped us and supported us, whether it was getting us food or just spiritual support.”

“I’m here to show the teachers that I support them 100 percent of the way.”

Heidy Rivera (no relation to Hector), is also a 17-year-old senior. She sees the strike as part of a larger issue of civic involvement.

“If we want something, we should be able to say our opinion and make changes,” she said. “If people aren’t doing their job, we should be able to point them out on that. Many people don’t realize that they have the power to make change, but we do.”


We’re curious, what are changes you would like to see with Chicago Public Schools? We’d love to read your comments below!


Photo credit: Jonathan Gibby


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