Chicago teachers strike: Vacations for students, for good or ill

Second day of Chicago teachers strike leaves schools empty and parents struggling to find childcare options for kids who see it as another vacation.

M. Spencer Green/AP Photo
The Chicago teachers strike meant vacation from school for kids. But it wasn't work-free for teachers teachers such as Michelle Harton, who walked picket lines outside Morgan Park High School, Sept. 11, 2012, on the second day of striking.

Makayla Hudson, a Chicago fourth grader, bubbled with enthusiasm Monday over her half day at an alternative program to shelter children during the public school teachers strike.

"It was good!" said Makayla, who presented her mother with a crayon picture of a school with a smiling sun, wearing eyeglasses, beaming down from a blue sky.

But Makayla's mother, Latrice Hudson, worried about how long the strike that began Monday could drag on. As she watched her children play in a West Side park outside of Skinner West Elementary School, Ms. Hudson confessed to mixed feelings about the action that involves some 29,000 teachers and support staff in the nation's third-largest school system.

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"I want to be in support of the teachers but I really wish they could have found a different way to go about it," said Hudson, who is studying to be a teacher and had to rearrange her classes. "I'm just hoping that it's over with by this week."

Thousands of public school teachers formed picket lines in Chicago during the first strike in a quarter century over working conditions and benefits, as well as reforms sought by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The strike left parents of 350,000 students between kindergarten and high school age scrambling to find alternative care.

The Chicago Public Schools opened 144 sites for half-day programs - providing food and activities from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. About 60 churches also opened their doors to children from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Other parents have sought programs at regional parks and libraries, or kept their children at home.

"What we found from our calls is that parents just didn't go to work," said Cy Fields, senior pastor at New Landmark Missionary Baptist Church on the city's West Side, one of the churches that is taking in public school children. About 17 children were sitting in the cheerful basement kitchen of the church at lunchtime, eating sandwiches and drinking milk. Tables held board games like "Connect Four" and checkers, along with coloring and activity books.

Mr. Fields said he expects more children at the church if the strike continues. While he thinks parents of younger children will find care for them, he is worried about teens in his violence-prone neighborhood, who are more likely to be left unattended and get into trouble.

"They may find themselves out on the streets," Fields said.


At the Taylor Park field house on the city's South Side, parents dropped off children for movies, games and other activities while next door, at Beethoven Academic Center, elementary school teachers with picket signs marched.

Most parents interviewed expressed support for the teachers, and teachers picketing were greeted with enthusiastic horn honking from passing motorists, particularly from unionized Chicago Transit Authority bus drivers.

But one mother, who asked not to be identified, noted that she had to take cuts in her own pension and pay. "The people at my job don't get to question their evaluation process," she said. A key sticking point in the negotiations is Emanuel's demand that teacher evaluations be tied to student performance on standardized tests, which the union opposes.

Fields said he was disappointed but not surprised that the two sides failed to work it out.

"Teachers deserve a fair contract, they deserve fair wages, they deserve fair working conditions. But the city and (the school district) have a fiscal responsibility," he said. "They got to find a compromise. They both got to give up some skin."

Teachers also have kids out of school. Catherine Schaller, a math teacher at Beethoven, said she told her teenage son he could stay home while she picketed, but he had to study.

"I told him, keep on studying, whatever you were studying study some more, because that's what today is about," Ms. Schaller said.

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