‘We’re Out Here for the Kids’

By Patty Wetli | Monday, September 10, 2012

Teachers picketing outside Amundsen High School. Credit: Patty Wetli

Cars, trucks and buses honked their horns up and down Lawrence, Foster, Western and Damen this morning, not because of a rush-hour traffic jam but to show support for Chicago’s striking teachers. Parents and neighbors delivered water, coffee and donuts to the picketers (new slogan: America’s teachers strike on Dunkin’); fire houses opened up their washrooms. And very few students turned up at the local schools designated “Children First” sites by CPS.

Of 110 students registered, approximately 20 showed up at McPherson Elementary, 4728 N. Wolcott Ave. Mike Carlson, McPherson parent and LSC representative, brought his 13-year-old autistic son to the school in large part to maintain continuity. “At least he’s got some of his routine, some familiar faces,” said Carlson, who made a point of emphasizing his support for teachers.

“My son got up at 5 a.m. to put on a red shirt,” he said.

Unofficial reports indicate 45 65 students at Amundsen High School and approximately 10 21 at Lane Tech. Another 30 kids registered for the free day camp program at Welles Park and 20 attended a strike camp organized by the education advocacy group, Raise Your Hand, held at Luther Memorial Church.

“It’s a real fluid process at this point. A lot [of parents] are figuring out what to do,” said Amy Goodman of Raise Your Hand. Stationed at Luther Memorial, she continued to field emails and texts asking, “Can you take one more?” The program can accommodate 40 students, ages five and up; donations of books and art supplies poured in and the organization even snagged a ping-pong table.

“We’re set up for two days,” said Goodman, who’s running the operation along with RYH’s Wendy Katten and a group of volunteers. “We’re just moms.” (For more info, contact Goodman at goodmanblade@yahoo.com.)

Shuttered classrooms have teachers equally stressed. “I had tears in my eyes,” Linda Goff, special ed teacher at Chappell Elementary and the school’s union delegate, said of her reaction to news of the strike. “I don’t want to be out here.” Last week, Chappell teachers sent students home with work packets in the event of a strike. “We don’t want a break in service. We just got started,” said Goff.

Which begs the question, why are teachers picketing instead of educating? Said Goff, “We’re out here for the kids.”

Much of the reporting to date has focused on compensation, partly because everyone understands money but mainly because that’s one of the few issues CTU is allowed to negotiate and strike on.

“That’s not the conversation we want,” said Karen Soto, a teacher at Waters Elementary and union delegate. Class size, high-stakes testing and wrap-around services, which include social workers, nurses and clinicians, are among teachers’ greatest concerns. (For example, Lane Tech, with 4,000-plus students, has just one social worker 4.5 days a week, two part-time nurses and one school psychologist, who was redeployed to an elementary school one day a week and DeVry for a half day.)

“You just saw the train wreck coming,” Soto said. “The things [the board] is talking about aren’t the things teachers are talking about.”

Testing is a huge point of contention. “Our kids are given at least five or six tests” a year, said Goff. “They had two tests the first day of school.” Instead of the heavy emphasis on test prep for reading and math, teachers like Goff would rather see the system provide more diverse classes that take into account children’s variable interests and aptitudes.

“I can see why some of the children have all this apathy,” she said. Students are frequently made to feel poor test performance equates to failure or a lack of ability. “Kids who are good at more than reading and writing” should receive positive reinforcement as well.

Test scores, teachers feel, were also weighted far too heavily in the board’s new teacher evaluation system, the guidelines for which run 130 pages long. (That’s just the copy given to teachers. The administrator copy, we’ve been told, is a couple of binders thick.)

Pam Touras is a 23-year veteran at McPherson Elementary, where she teaches math and the humanities in the school’s IB program. As one of the union delegates who sat at the bargaining table over the weekend, she’s more familiar than most with the issues keeping the two sides apart.

Teachers strike runs on Dunkin'. Credit: Patty Wetli

Touras readily acknowledged that the old evaluation process needed fixing. “It’s been 40 years,” she said. “It’s very flawed.” But the board’s solution based 50 percent of the evaluation on student test scores. To paraphrase one teacher’s comments to CSJ: You want your livelihood to depend on a seven-year-old?

CTU is looking for something closer to 30 percent, or better yet, none, said McPherson parent, Mike Carlson.

“Tests should be used to identify the kids that need help,” he said. “They should not be used to judge a teacher.”

The difficulty in presenting the issue to the public is that teacher evaluation is a far more complicated sound bite than “longer school day.” CTU President Karen Lewis, in her press conference announcing the strike, left most people scratching their heads when she referred to 6,000 teachers who would lose their jobs under the new evaluation system.

Touras attempted to clarify: Teachers would receive ratings of “excellent,” “proficient,” “needs improvement,” and “unsatisfactory,” with a dramatic cut-off between “proficient” and “needs improvement” she equated to a grading system that goes from As and Bs to Ds and Fs. Two years of “needs improvement” and “you’re out of a job,” said Touras.

Certainly, a teacher who continually rates “needs improvement” might not be suited to the job. Goff countered with a real-world example: She teaches students with severe and profound cognitive and physical disabilities. One of the tests used to measure improvement requires students to recognize charts. “I have students who are blind,” said Goff. Should her students fail an impossible test and she’s evaluated on those scores, Goff could be terminated for failing to teach a blind student how to read a pie graph.

So yes, there are compensations issue. The longer school day, for example, has elementary school teachers starting their day at the same time as students, meaning most are actually arriving an hour earlier, unpaid, to prepare for the day. “When we went to college to become teachers, we weren’t signing up to be volunteers,” Goff said.

But the strike, from what teachers told us, is just as much about dignity, and the sense that education policy is not being driven by educators.

It’s a sense shared by parents. “I care strongly about class size and having art and music,” said RYH’s Goodman, whose two children attend Nettlehorst Elementary. CPS has an “amazing resource in teachers” but rather than engaging them in directing reform, the board issues top-down mandates.

“I’ve been disappointed all year with the lack of respect shown to teachers and parents by CPS and Rahm Emanuel,” she said.

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