How Chicago Public School Teachers Are Fighting for Black Children’s Futures

Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

Class was canceled for 300,000 Chicago public school students Thursday, as tens of thousands of teachers and their supporters headed to the picket line to strike for better conditions in their schools.

If you haven’t been paying attention, you might assume the Chicago Teachers Union’s escalation is a matter of money—and to be sure, there are plenty of underpaid teachers in Chicago public schools. CTU is asking for pay increases on a shorter timeline than what the city is currently offering: Chicago wants to give teachers a 16 percent pay raise over five years, the union is asking for 15 percent over three years.

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But the sticking points between the union and the city are more about equity, access, and justice. As NPR reports, the union wants smaller class sizes and more specialized staff. “Since the current leadership took over the CTU in 2009, it has been pushing a focus on social justice issues, moving far beyond the traditional union bread and butter concerns,” NPR writes. This includes a demand that all of the city’s public schools (more than 600 total) have a dedicated nurse, librarian, and social worker.

But the union isn’t stopping there: it’s also pushing to include fair housing measures in the new contract. As the Intelligencer reports, “The union has asked for a ban on evictions during the school year, housing assistance for teachers, and, according to Labor Notes, new funding to help homeless students and families.” The union estimates some 16,000 students are currently homeless.

Teachers have raised these issues with the city for years, but an influx of money—$181 million gained from tax revenue—has the union hopeful that it can finally address these needs.

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CTU is taking on an unprecedented battle to shape the conditions and the direction of its schools. On this note, it’s important to remember one fact: The fight for equity in the Chicago public schools disproportionately impacts black students’ futures.

As the Atlantic notes, nine out of 10 Chicago Public School students are black or Latinx. As of late, CPS students have been doing relatively well, ranking first in the country for academic growth. College-attendance rates have also improved—though they are still below the Illinois state average. But the city’s residents are still dealing with the effects of years of austerity measures, as well as the fallout from an unprecedented wave of public school closures enacted by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013. Chicago native and educator Eve Ewing pointed out in the Guardian last year that 90 percent of those schools were majority-black.

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Students’ prospects didn’t improve when they were forced to attend other schools, she writes:

The history of segregation and inequality has left struggling schools largely clustered together across the landscape, meaning that students leaving a school facing challenges are likely to end up in an equally challenged school close by.

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Years later, these schools remain under-resourced, unable to meet some of their student’s most basic needs. As ABC 7 Chicago reports, CTU says a typical nurse has to rotate between 4 to 5 different schools each week: “for students with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, the school district uses a private agency, which parents say results in a revolving door of nurses, some who don’t even show up.” The lack of stability means that care for their kids has been inadequate and inconsistent, parents say.

According to the city blog Block Club Chicago, the shortage of social workers may be even worse. One CPS social worker said she was responsible for nearly 1,000 students at two schools. Her example isn’t exactly atypical—“there is currently one social worker for every 865 students and most split time between two schools,” Jonathan Ballew writes. For perspective, the National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker per every 250 students—for schools with high levels of trauma, that rate is one social worker for every 50.

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Addressing trauma remains a top priority for the city’s educators. Last month, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson went to Washington, D.C., to lobby for federal resources, telling Congress in September, “in too many of Chicago’s neighborhoods ... violence has become a fact of life.” Jackson pointed out that homicide is “now the number one killer of Chicago’s youth”—a fact that hits the city’s poor, black neighborhoods the hardest.

Teachers are often forced to fill in the gaps, despite having increased teaching loads. Overcrowding is also a persistent issue in the city—one that students, teachers, and families alike have rallied around. At a news conference held earlier this month, high school sophomore Neryssa Scott expressed her frustration with her trigonometry class.

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As she told CBS 2 Chicago:

“Today I needed help and I couldn’t get the help I needed, because [the teacher] had to keep going around the classroom, trying to tell them to calm down, or help other students where she couldn’t help me. I understand that might sound selfish but it’s not. I need the education that I want. I’m trying to pass but I can’t do that because there’s only one teacher against 40 other students,” she said. “That is a shame. And I need that fixed now so I can get the education I want to receive.”

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It’s no wonder, then, that more Chicagoans support the strike (49 percent, according to Vox) than oppose it (38 percent)—even as it puts pressure on families to find ways to care for their kids.

This week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her team have pledged to flush CPS schools with hundreds of social workers, special education case managers, and nurses in the next five years, but the union wants this commitment codified in the contract. This way, Vox explains, “the union can guarantee that the hired staff will have professional credentials and that the work would be done internally, not contracted out.”

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With no agreement between the teachers and the city, the strike will continue into Friday—a fact Lightfoot lamented in remarks published by CNN on Thursday.

“We need to get our kids back in school. Every day we are out, that hurts our children,” she said. “We need to make sure that we do everything possible to create an environment where we can get back to the table, where we can get a deal done so that our kids can be back in our normal rhythm and cadence.”

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Here, Lightfoot has stumbled directly into the problem: Chicago’s public school teachers don’t want the norm for the city’s kids—a norm that has squeezed, penalized and obstructed opportunities for the city’s most vulnerable residents for generations. They want schools worth returning to. The schools Chicago students deserve.

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About the author

Anne Branigin

Staff writer, The Root. Sometimes I blog slow, sometimes I blog quick. Do you have this in coconut?