The grating sound of electronic school bells rang out as usual from Pilsen Academy on Friday morning.
But unlike most days, the sound was not punctuated by laughter and chatter from students and their parents outside the school in this immigrant working class neighborhood on the Chicago’s southwest side.
Soon after the school bells, a chorus of loud honking broke out: the salutations of truckers for striking teachers handing out fliers on several busy corners nearby and outside the Benito Juarez Community Academy just to the south.
The future of the Chicago teachers strike was still unclear Friday morning as thousands of teachers and supporters in red T-shirts again hit the picket lines and the streets while union leadership and the school board went back to the negotiating table.
On Thursday union president Karen Lewis had indicated a deal was close and students might be back in school on Monday. A union delegates meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday, where delegates could vote to approve a deal if one is reached before then. That would mean the strike could be called off, though the full membership would still need to approve the new contract.
In Pilsen, teachers said they were unclear about details of the negotiations and ready to continue the strike if need be. A key issue still being negotiated is job security (or recall rights) for teachers who are laid off when schools deemed “failing” are closed or “turned around” with new staff. The union is demanding recall rights for these teachers; current policy guarantees them only a job interview.
The negotiations over recall rights are a proxy for the larger issue of closing regular unionized public schools and opening new non-union charters, an ongoing controversy which is not subject to union negotiations. The matter is especially sensitive in this neighborhood, a power base of the politically connected and controversial United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), which runs nearby charter schools and has more proposals in the works.
Teachers at Benito Juarez, a high school founded as the result of community activism by Chicano and immigrant leaders in decades past, have heard rumors that their school could be closed and replaced by a charter. They see it as a direct attack on the teachers union and organized labor in general.
“We had to strike, hopefully it can be resolved and we can preserve the union,” said Benito Juarez math teacher Jose Anaya, noting that he sees the school board and city administration’s approach as a direct attack on the union. “That’s what this boils down to. This is about standing up for all unions. Unions built the middle class in this country, but now [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel wants to take teachers out of the middle class. The mayor is anti-union.”
The way teachers are evaluated is another sticking point in the negotiations, with the union stridently resisting plans for evaluating teachers based on standardized metrics of “student growth” and “value added” results judged year to year in part by numerical formulas.
“Teaching is a craft, teachers and their colleagues and administrators need to work together to build that craft. It’s not a matter of one-time evaluations,” said Cynthia Gray, a choral music teacher at Benito Juarez. Gray noted that her three children attend public schools that like Benito Juarez do offer art, libraries and music – but that is not the case in many public schools. Teachers and parents have throughout the negotiations called for more art and music classes, and lamented that an increased focus on standardized testing will further erode resources and time for such pursuits.
Anna Hernandez, a kindergarten teacher at Perez Elementary School in Pilsen, said that an inordinate focus on standardized testing prevents teachers from meeting students’ diverse and changing needs, academically and emotionally.
“Every year is different, we need to be able to teach for life, not just for test scores,” she said. “The students are learning for life, but [the administration] just wants results that have to do with right now.”
She also opposes the frequent mention of average teacher salaries among the highest in the nation – above $70,000 a year, according to the district. “I’ve been teaching 25 years, and I make nothing near that,” she said.
Adam Heenan, a social studies teacher and union delegate at Curie Metro High School on the southwest side of the city, said the recall rights are important for students as well as teachers because it provides continuity and consistency, including when students can look forward to having the same teachers as their older siblings.
“Having turnover and school closures is devastating for these communities,” he said. “We’re talking about stability, for teachers and for the community.”
A mass “Wisconsin-style” rally is planned for Union Park near the teachers’ strike headquarters on Saturday afternoon. Benito Juarez union delegate Manuel Bermudez said he is looking forward to greeting “busloads” of supporters from Wisconsin, Ohio and other places. Teachers are also celebrating a recent $10,000 donation from Los Angeles union teachers.
“We’re getting support from everywhere,” said Heenan. “It’s been great.”
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and journalism instructor. She worked through 2009 as a staff writer for The Washington Post out of the Midwest bureau. She is the author of three books, most recently "Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover and What It Says About the Economic Crisis."