Brenda Smith runs the Gold and Silver Art FX jewelry store inside Navy Pier and has brought her 7-year-old son with her to work the last two days.
Like many parents, she said it’s been difficult and stressful to figure out what to do with her son while his school is closed due to a labor dispute between teachers and city officials.
“I don’t agree with the strike,” she said. “They were working on this for 10 months and had a good plan. It’s unfair they had our kids in school for a week and then started the strike.”
The Chicago Teachers Union strike entered its second day on Tuesday.
For the 350,00 students displaced by the strike, alternative options have been provided by CPS to assist those without access to childcare, although some parents like Smith said they did not feel comfortable taking advantage of them. Across the city, schools and community groups reported low attendance.
One hundred forty four schools are being used as safe havens as well as 78 Chicago public libraries, 59 faith-based organizations and more than 90 other community organizations.
At one location, the Mt. Vernon Baptist Church’s Abundant Life Community Center on Chicago’s West Side, about 15 students have spent Monday and Tuesday studying and doing activities, according to program coordinator Latoya Allen, 31.
“We are keeping their minds active,” she said. “My main concern is the children.” According to Allen, the number of students attending is relatively low.
No students came to The Vietnamese Association of Illinois on North Broadway Street.
Francis Khuc, a counselor and adjustment program editor for cultural organization for Chicago’s Vietnamese community, said some employees stayed home to take care of their school-age children.
For-nonprofit organizations like the Chicago Children’s Museum are also involved in helping out.
Chad Mertz, director of public relations for the museum, said they’ve monitored the situation since contract deliberations started and decided to let all CPS students into the museum for free this week.
However, some Chicago parents have had to miss work in order to care for their children. Gloria Kwarteay, 41, said she has to miss work and take her children to the local Boys and Girls Club for free.
“They’re enjoying their day off, but I’m not,” Kwarteay said.
Tony D’lgato, grandparent of a CPS student and employee of Uplift Community High School, said his workload is lighter because the kids are not there.
“I miss the kids. I miss the noise. I miss all that good stuff,” he said.
According to the National Council on Teacher Equality, 87 percent of Chicago Public School students are part of the free or reduced price lunch program, an 11 percent increase since 2007. Children who usually eat at school will have to eat at contingency schools.
While kids and parents try to find solutions, the teachers continue to fight for their demands.
“I’m fighting for them,” said Keena Washington, a speech and language pathologist, when asked whether or not she feels guilty about having so many kids out of school during this strike.
“I have no guilt. They took away our aids. We need more clinicians. I have 50 students that I deal with, traveling from seven different schools in the central district area on the South and West sides of Chicago and I have to use my own gas money,” she said.
Washington explained how challenging teaching in the Englewood neighborhood can be, as many of her students have to deal with gang violence, drug abuse and struggling low-income households.
“A lot of my students haven’t even been downtown,” she said.
Rebecca Brown, 51, a pre-kindergarten schoolteacher at the South Loop Elementary School arrived at her school when it was still dark, at 5:45 a.m. She was one of the first teachers to arrive.
“It’s day two and I’m tired,” said Brown, a teachers union delegate. “I do this for the love of teaching and helping children and feels hurt that they are not getting the tools and support from the city.”
She added: “I’m trying to not cry. I’m trying to not get emotional.”
Anne Cooper, 32, a CPS social worker, said she wanted the strike to end on its first day.
“I teach at Schurs and I deal with behavior issues, suicidal thoughts and depression. You name it, I deal with it,” Cooper said. “I think that Rahm Emmanuel should listen more to the people who do the job day to day and not the people who have lots of money on the board.”
According to the CTU, Labor talks have been effective on negotiating provisions for nursing mothers, ensuring textbooks, functioning computers and appropriate workspaces for counselors and social workers. However, issues such as job security, teacher evaluation and wages are still up for discussion.
Last May, the strike authorization vote drew an overwhelming 98 percent approval from CTU membership. Educators are also pushing for more classes in art, music and foreign languages.
Teachers picket outside of Jones Preparatory High School on Tuesday in the South Loop. (Photo by James Foster)
Despite calls from CPS president David Vitale to “put the interests of children first,” the rallied teachers on the sidewalk say their workload has increased over the last five years.
“My caseload has doubled in the four-and-a-half years I’ve been with the public schools,” said Erin Hamblin, a 33-year old social worker. “My official caseload is about 71 students, but with two days of IASSW [Illinois Association of School Social Workers] meetings each week, I only have three days to meet with every student.”
Many of the teachers who were asked to be interviewed declined comment and continued to strike.
Amanda White, a recently hired CPS teacher, was only five days into her new job before Chicago teachers went on strike.
“I’m disappointed,” she said. “I want to work. I just want to be in school with the kids and teach.”
White noted that not all teachers are on board with the strike. Some believe that contract negotiations were making progress and the strike wasn’t necessary.
“I’m brand new so I don’t really feel part of the union yet,” she said. “I stand on the picket line and hold a sign but I don’t cheer and scream like other teachers.”
Negotiations were making progress, White said, and teachers didn’t have to strike to get their message across. “I just think they were so angry that this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Many of White’s students are native Spanish speakers, which can be a disadvantage on tests.
In addition to language barriers, students at Northwest Middle School, in Belmont Cragin, are learning with outdated technology. White said the average computer at the school dates from 1997. Teachers are lucky if they have an overhead projector, she said.
Josephine Ferreira, 23, a teacher at Pilsen Community Academy, was waiting for the bus on 18th Street around the corner from where she teaches. “I want more resources,” she said.
“Pay is a part of it, but I could care less about the pay raise,” the teacher added. “I have nothing to work off of.”
This year Ferreira went downtown to Harold Washington Library to get books for her students because the school system did not provide her enough, she said.
“I have 29 second-graders with only 12 students to give books to.”
Albert Delgado, 53, a teacher at Whittier Elementary School, said students at his Pilsen school come from low-income backgrounds. He’d like to see more resources for schools like his.
“We have the kids who are the most vulnerable,” Delgado said. “These kids need extra help.”
Teachers are not the only people that make up the Chicago Teachers Union. Jane Hearrin, 56, is the hearing and vision technician at the South Loop Elementary School. She remembered the the last CPS strike in 1987.
“Back then there was an expectation of a strike almost every year,” Hearrin said.
Debrah Woo, 57, also participated in the last teacher’s union strike 25 years ago. “We’re not doing this for the money, we’re doing this for the children,” Woo said. “There is such little respect for education and educators.”
Woo was on State Street in the Loop near Jones Preparatory School. Her sign read “xxx.”
Despite criticism from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office, teachers received support while out on the streets. There was a continuous sound of horns being honked as cars passed the picket lines across the city.
Corrections were made to the story.
Lynsey Mukomel, Cherisse, Trevor Greif, Brandon Kuesis, Kaitlyn Cubacub, Trevor Joseph, Aaron Christopher Bulnes, Sarai Flores, Brian Tabick, Jessica Lang, Karla Venegas, Tatiana Walk-Morris, James Foster and Michelle Phelan contributed reporting.