Why Are Chicago Teachers Striking Against Mayor Lori Lightfoot? They’ve Been “Lied To” Before.

Kari Lydersen October 17, 2019

Chicago teachers have had it with the city's empty promises. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As a pink sun­rise paint­ed the sky on Thurs­day morn­ing, horns blared seem­ing­ly non­stop from semi trucks, com­muters’ cars, a con­crete mix­er and count­less oth­er vehi­cles. They were all sup­port­ing mem­bers of the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) and SEIU Local 73, which rep­re­sents school sup­port staff, on the pick­et line before dawn out­side John A. Walsh Ele­men­tary School in Chicago’s heav­i­ly immi­grant Pilsen neighborhood.

At schools across the city, teach­ers and staff waved signs, blew whis­tles, chant­ed and cheered to a cacoph­o­ny of sup­port­ive honk­ing from morn­ing traf­fic. Teach­ers said they’re dis­ap­point­ed that the admin­is­tra­tion of May­or Lori Light­foot has not yet fol­lowed through on cam­paign promis­es to increase school staffing, shrink class sizes, cre­ate an elect­ed school board and oth­er­wise bol­ster pub­lic edu­ca­tion. But with the sup­port of the pub­lic — and a whop­ping 94% of mem­ber­ship vot­ing to strike — they are hopeful.

Peo­ple in the schools every day can’t bear to see what’s hap­pen­ing,” said Walsh coun­selor Kristy Brooks. Kids in Chica­go have tough lives, they’re deal­ing with pover­ty, immi­gra­tion fears, vio­lence, and we’re ask­ing them to put all that aside when they come here. That’s a lot to ask. That’s why we need these sup­port systems.”

Brooks, who has been in the school sys­tem for 14 years, pre­vi­ous­ly worked at a school on the West Side that was closed dur­ing for­mer May­or Rahm Emanuel’s shut­ter­ing of almost 50 schools. She said stu­dents, fam­i­lies and teach­ers still haven’t recov­ered from the impacts of those school clos­ings, not to men­tion the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, vio­lence and oth­er trau­ma that caus­es stu­dents to need far more access to coun­selors, nurs­es and social work­ers than is cur­rent­ly avail­able. Most schools have a nurse on site only once a week, and CPS’s ratios of stu­dents to nurs­es and social work­ers are about four and five times high­er than rec­om­mend­ed by those pro­fes­sions’ nation­al asso­ci­a­tions, accord­ing to the union.

Ear­li­er this sum­mer, Light­foot announced the hir­ing of hun­dreds of nurs­es and social work­ers, and said in a state­ment last week that her admin­is­tra­tion is com­mit­ting $400,000 to devel­op­ing a pipeline of nurs­es, coun­selors and case man­agers.” But the union wants spe­cif­ic bench­marks writ­ten into their con­tract — a demand the admin­is­tra­tion has resisted.

On Thurs­day morn­ing, coun­selor Mary Jane Nykiel pick­et­ed out­side Richard T. Crane Med­ical Prep High School on the Near West Side, a neigh­bor­hood with a large African-Amer­i­can population.

Because of the lack of oth­er clin­i­cians, coun­selors are spread very thin and asked to do oth­er duties that aren’t coun­selor duties,” Nykiel said. We’re pulled in many directions.”

She said that the school, which was con­sid­ered for clo­sure by Emanuel’s admin­is­tra­tion, has a beau­ti­ful library but hasn’t had a librar­i­an in 15 years.” Nykiel serves 450 stu­dents, and the school has a nurse twice a week and a social work­er once a week, she said, which isn’t near enough espe­cial­ly on the West Side where there’s so much inequity and pover­ty and trauma.”

Nykiel not­ed that even after the teach­ers gar­nered impor­tant con­tract gains and mas­sive pub­lic sup­port dur­ing the 2012 strike, the admin­is­tra­tion still car­ried out among the largest mass school clos­ings in U.S. his­to­ry soon after.

To Daniel Wash­co, a ninth-grade Eng­lish teacher at Richard T. Crane Med­ical Prep High School on the city’s West Side, those clos­ings under­scored that promis­es from the admin­is­tra­tion — like Lightfoot’s pledges to hire more nurs­es and social work­ers — are not enough. Now put it in writ­ing,” he said.

Wash­co was excit­ed and hope­ful when Light­foot was elect­ed, and still feels her heart is in the right place.” The out­come of the strike will be telling, he said: This is where the rub­ber meets the road.”

At Walsh, Brooks serves 302 stu­dents, a small­er num­ber than coun­selors at many schools, though still above the Amer­i­can School Coun­selor Association’s rec­om­mend­ed lev­el of 250 stu­dents per coun­selor. And her rel­a­tive­ly light load is in part because of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in the neigh­bor­hood. The school has lost about 50% of its stu­dent body in the six years Brooks has been there, she said, with immi­grant fam­i­lies dis­placed as the neigh­bor­hood becomes more expen­sive. Across the street from the school, new­ly built, still-unoc­cu­pied con­dos cov­er an entire city block.

The impacts of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and lack of afford­able hous­ing on stu­dents, teach­ers and espe­cial­ly school para­pro­fes­sion­als like clerks are among the rea­sons CTU has demand­ed the admin­is­tra­tion agree to endorse rent con­trol and spe­cif­ic afford­able hous­ing pro­vi­sions. Near­ly a quar­ter of para­pro­fes­sion­als make less than $32,000 a year, accord­ing to the union. One pick­et sign said, My bar job paid for this sign.”

It’s incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult for par­ents and teach­ers to be able to live near their schools and be part of their com­mu­ni­ty” because of ris­ing hous­ing prices, said Washco.

In a state­ment, Light­foot said CTU want­ed to set the city’s afford­able hous­ing pol­i­cy through their col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment,” which would side­line oth­er stake­hold­ers. She said she appoint­ed the city’s first hous­ing com­mis­sion­er in a decade,” while also announc­ing a plan for low-income hous­ing tax credits.

Esther Valen­ciano raised her kids in Pilsen and they grad­u­at­ed from Walsh, just around the cor­ner from their home. Valen­ciano has worked at Walsh as a preschool teach­ing assis­tant for 23 years, but when she decid­ed to buy a home, she couldn’t afford to stay in Pilsen. Now her son and daugh­ter also work in Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS) as teach­ing assis­tants, and are study­ing to become teachers.

Valen­ciano and the teacher she assists are often in charge of more than 40 preschool­ers, includ­ing some with spe­cial needs. They’re lit­tle kids, so we have to be fast,” she said. Espe­cial­ly in gym, it becomes a safe­ty issue. It should not be that way.”

Valen­ciano finds her­self, teach­ers, par­ents and grand­par­ents all work­ing togeth­er as our own social work­ers” to try to help kids with prob­lems when no case man­agers are avail­able. We do what we can do togeth­er,” she said.

Mean­while, coun­selors say they’re often doing the jobs of social work­ers, plus help­ing in the class­room, lunch­room or recess, along with their pri­ma­ry respon­si­bil­i­ty of advis­ing stu­dents about aca­d­e­mics, col­lege and careers.

Out­side Nixon Ele­men­tary on the city’s large­ly His­pan­ic, work­ing-class North­west Side, librar­i­an and union del­e­gate Leslie West­er­berg pick­et­ed with her shel­ter res­cue dog, Milo, wear­ing a home­made union dog jack­et. A CPS school West­er­berg pre­vi­ous­ly worked at closed its library and dis­man­tled the book­shelves to turn it into a class­room, she said. She doesn’t know what hap­pened to all the books she fundraised to buy.

At Nixon, West­er­berg said she’s lucky to have a prin­ci­pal who pri­or­i­tizes the library, but she notes many schools can’t do that as the system’s stu­dent-based bud­get­ing for­mu­la means prin­ci­pals have to make tough choic­es when allo­cat­ing scarce resources.

We want stu­dents to know how to research and be ready for col­lege, and we want them to excel at read­ing and have a love of read­ing, but how can we do that with­out libraries and librar­i­ans?” she asked. She said the union under­stands that high­er staffing lev­els of librar­i­ans, coun­selors, social work­ers and nurs­es may need to be phased in over time, but she still wants the posi­tions man­dat­ed in the con­tract and fund­ed through the cen­tral office so that can­di­dates can be hired when they are found.

It’s unfair to our stu­dents that we have to beg for this,” she said. It’s con­cern­ing that [Light­foot] is offer­ing things but not putting them in writ­ing, so we could poten­tial­ly be lied to, and CPS has lied to us so many times. They still need to earn our trust.”

Across the street from West­er­berg, fifth-grade math teacher Saman­tha Gill and spe­cial edu­ca­tion assis­tant Diana Morales wore uni­corn and tiger one­sies as they danced Zum­ba and Gill waved a glit­tery microphone.

City offi­cials don’t under­stand the rela­tion­ships we have with kids, that we are lit­er­al­ly doing all of this for them,” said Morales, an SEIU Local 73 mem­ber. It’s not fair to kids not to have nurs­es, librar­i­ans, coun­selors. We owe them the best, and this isn’t the best.”

Gill said kinder­garten­ers have told her that it’s hard for them to be suc­cess­ful with more than 40 kids in a class. The kids under­stand it,” she said. Why can’t the politi­cians under­stand it?”

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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