Striking teachers take to streets
Hope for resolution remains in early days of walk-out
09/12/2012 10:00 PM
As the procession of striking Chicago Public School teachers and their supporters marched across the Near North Side on Monday, car horns followed them everywhere. The teachers waved signs reading “honk if you support the teachers,” and many of the passing motorists were happy to oblige. Every time the cars honked, the marchers cheered. But the loudest cheers came when one of the police patrol cars slowed down and honked.
Nearby, a grandmother clinched her grandson’s hand and mumbled: “Would any of you pay for a babysitter?”
As Monday morning dawned and the negotiations between Chicago Public Schools administration and the Chicago Teachers Union resumed, the teachers picketed all across the city. On the Near North Side, Walter Payton College Prep High School became the focal point of protests, even as other, smaller pickets took place in front of every school in the area. And while many parents expressed support for the teachers, some showed ambivalence about the practical consequences of the strike.
After the teachers union announced its intention to go through with the strike late Sunday night, the CPS administration implemented a strike contingency plan. Under the plan, 144 schools opened between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. While the sites couldn’t legally offer any instruction, they provided breakfast and lunch and offered various activities to keep students occupied.
In River North, Near North, the Gold Coast, Streeterville and parts of Lincoln Park, elementary school students were sent to George Manierre Elementary School, while high school students were sent to Walter Payton College Prep High School.
Payton High School faces Wells Street, one of the busier streets in the neighborhood. To take advantage of the visibility, teachers from several nearby CPS schools joined the Payton teachers. Most notably, the protestors included a sizable contingent from Salazar Elementary Bilingual Center, which is located right across the street from Payton.
“We’ve been here since 6 a.m.,” said Linda Zolt, a Payton librarian. “We are trying to shore up unity and get some attention.”
Zolt estimated that about 65 teachers were from her school. She could not give the exact numbers for other schools.
A small group of Payton students joined their teachers at the picket line. When asked what inspired them, a student named Lev Gray explained:
“Because I think it’s important to stand up for teachers and workers,” Gray said. “We need to stand up for their rights. And it’s important to support their ability to organize.”
According to Zolt, the parents’ response has been largely positive. She said that some even joined the rally earlier that day.
The area by Payton’s main entrance functioned as a staging area for the picket. A table with coffee and donuts was set up north of the front door, and there was a pile of posters that the picketers could pick up. There were also poster parts and markers for those who preferred to make their own signs.
In effort to attract more attention to their cause, the picketers marched around the Near North Side, making a small loop around Wells Street, Chicago Avenue, Orleans Street and Division Street. The group stayed in front of Payton to get interviewed for CBS’ 11 a.m. news, then headed downtown to join a larger rally.
At Manierre, the union’s activities were more subdued. The teachers picketed in the morning and left before 10:30 a.m.
There were also strikers at schools that didn’t open at all. A group of Franklin Elementary Fine Arts Center teachers picketed at the corner of Wells Street and Evergreen Avenue.
“We believe in our cause,” said Jason Eastman, a special education teacher at Franklin. “We want to be with our students today, but we want to be fairly compensated.”
Chris Meenaghan, a Technology teacher, argued that the teachers aren’t asking for anything unreasonable.
“This is about our students,” he said. “We are fighting to have good learning conditions. We want our students to have their textbooks on their first day, we want to make sure there are councilors and nurses to be at our schools, helping our kids.”
While Meenaghan said that longer school day and school year can work, he argues that there are many aspects of the plan that CPS administration hadn’t considered. It starts with something as simple as making sure all schools have working air conditioners, he said.
“CPS wants the school to start in the middle of August,” he said. “We can try to teach, but, as you can imagine, it’s difficult for kids to pay attention in 93-degree heat.”
Like Zolt, Meenaghan told Skyline that feedback has been largely positive. The parents have been supportive — some even brought the teachers coffee in the morning. And, around noon, a local restaurant donated them food and water, allowing them to stay longer than planned.
Tanisha Horton is one such supportive parent. She has two kids, both of whom attend Manierre Elementary.
“I support the teachers,” she said. “I do believe that teachers are doing the right thing.”
At the same time, Horton wasn’t happy with the fact that her kids weren’t learning anything during the strike. She found CPS contingency plan inadequate.
“All my kids did was eat breakfast, lunch and color in the coloring books,” said Horton. “That ain’t right. They should offer some type of co-educational services — teach them computers, invite guest speakers, anything.”
DiShawn Wright didn’t have any kids in CPS schools, but he sided with the unions.
“They need to get paid more,” he said. “The mayor is trying to make them work 20 percent more for a 2 percent raise.”
Ultimately, none of the teachers who talked to Skyline expressed hope that the contract negotiations would be resolved sooner rather than later.
“I want it settled,” Zolt said. “I don’t want to have to be out here tomorrow.”