Local schools cope with strike

As teachers march outside, kids still in building at Smyth, South Loop

09/12/2012 10:00 PM

By BEN MEYERSON
Editor

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Teachers strike outside Manuel Perez Elementary School in Pilsen on Tuesday, Sept. 11.
DAVID PIERINI/Staff Photographer

It was a beautiful, crisp fall day Monday morning, just the kind of day that kids, parents and teachers think of fondly when they picture the first week of school. But on Plymouth Court, there weren’t many kids coming to South Loop Elementary.

Instead, a cluster of a few dozen teachers and union supporters decked out in red hoodies and T-shirts gathered around the school’s main entrance, holding banners and signs spelling out their displeasure with Chicago Public Schools officials.

It was the first day of the Chicago Teachers Union’s strike, which is putting public education at a standstill in the city until union and school district chiefs finish hammering out a new contract.

The majority of public schools around the city are closed at least through Wednesday (with the exception of charters), but South Loop Elementary is one of the few buildings being kept open as part of CPS’ Children First plan.

Officials initially had been bracing for a mass of children to show up at buildings as desperate parents sought somewhere to keep their kids. But as of 9 a.m. Monday, South Loop only had 48 kids show up, according to Principal Tara Shelton. Most were already South Loop students, with a few from the National Teachers Academy and Jackson, Skinner and Greeley schools, she said.

“We have the computer lab open, we have the theater room open, we have the gym open for sports and physical activities, we have arts and crafts, we have the game room open and we have the preschool room open. We’ll also have recess after the strikers leave,” Shelton said.

“We’re just hoping everything ends quickly,” she added. “So far, it’s been a smooth transition — there haven’t been any problems at all. We were ready. It seems like the strikers were ready also, and everyone’s doing what they think is best.”

But for South Loop parent El Chen, the strike is a major inconvenience. Though she’s happy she can still take her second- and fifth-grade daughters to their normal school for some kind of activity, she has to go to work late and leave early to make sure her kids are taken care of.

“It’s just really chaotic,” Chen said. “[My husband and I] both work, so it’s really hard to for us, especially with the economy like it is. Without knowing how it is, I can’t just keep taking days off.

“I don’t hear clearly that the differences are so bad that they have to strike. I hold both sides accountable,” she added. “I just don’t understand why they can’t keep on negotiating while the kids go to school. I know there’s differences, but grown-ups need to do it in a better way.”

Further west, at Smyth Elementary on the edge of University Village, a group of a few dozen protestors gathered outside the building at 14th Street and Blue Island Avenue. As fire department vehicles drove back and forth past the strikers, time and time again they got honks from their mighty horns.

Inside the building was another group of students participating in Children First. But Vanessa Reese-Clark, a fifth-grade teacher at Smyth and the school’s union representative, said that only about 45 students had shown up that day, by her estimate.

When asked how their relationship was with the school’s principal, Ron Whitmore, another teacher in the crowd said there were no hard feelings.

Though Whitmore was still at work inside the school, the teacher said he had brought them doughnuts and coffee that morning — both of which many in the group were still happily eating and drinking.

Whitmore declined to comment to Chicago Journal.

Reese-Clark said she and the school’s teachers would be out in front of the school until there was a new contract. She hadn’t given her kids too much extra work, but they had a homework packet, she said.

At South Loop School, Shelton was confident that as soon as a contract was signed, her staff and kids would pick up again quickly.

“I’m fortunate enough to work with a great group of staff, so I know when this ends, we’ll be right back on track,” Shelton said. “They know our purpose is to support students, so they’ll be back.”

CONTACT: bmeyerson@chicagojournal.com

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