GARFIELD PARK — Thousands of teachers took to the streets in a strike Thursday after the city failed to reach an agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union, leaving about 300,000 students out of class.
Though classes were canceled, school buildings remained open during regular hours so students would still have a safe place to spend their day and to have free breakfast and lunch.
Also open to West Side students out of class was the Breakthrough FamilyPlex, 3219 W. Carroll Ave. Mayor Lori Lightfoot stopped by Breakthrough in the morning to update teachers, parents and students on her progress toward finding an agreement with the CTU.
“We put very generous offers on the table, both for teachers and support personnel. And I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to bring them back to the table and resolve all the other different issues. … More recently the two issues that they asked us to focus on, class sizes and staffing, I thought we made actually significant progress on,” Lightfoot said.
Students who went to Breakthrough instead of spending the day at their teacher-less schools were greeted with food, games, sports and learning activities organized by the nonprofit’s teachers and administrators.
In the gymnasium at the FamilyPlex, the scene looked like recess time on an ordinary day at school with students running, playing and laughing with the excitement of a day off.
The instructors at Breakthrough brought in pumpkins for the kids to paint, among other arts and craft activities. They also prepared lesson plans so kids missing class would still spend the day in a learning environment where they would still exercise their math and reading mental muscles.
But most of the programming on typical day at Breakthrough is set to begin after school, and program instructors usually don’t arrive until the afternoon since they work late into the evening. So Breakthrough’s administrative team stepped in to help take care of the extra students until the regular scheduled activities resumed later in the day.
For chief program officer Bill Curry, the shuffle was a welcome opportunity to step out from the offices behind-the-scenes to interact directly with the children he works every day to support.
“There’s not a day off for students when they come to Breakthrough. It’s a day of engagement in a variety of ways that should stimulate your brain and keep you as an active learner, ready to go back to your primary teachers,” he said.
The number of students coming in varied across the day, from about 30 kids in the morning to 70 around lunchtime to as many as 200 in the late afternoon when ordinary programming was set to start, Curry said.
Most of the students spending their day at the Breakthrough FamilyPlex were kids who already participate in programs at the center, Curry said, because parents wouldn’t want to drop their children off at a place where they don’t know the staff.
“I think that’s why it’s important that the schools are open,” Curry said.
Teachers, parents and CPS officials generally agree that it is in the best interest of the kids to keep the schools open during the strike. While the schools don’t have the same programming that Breakthrough has during strike, it is at least a safe, supervised place for the kids while parents are at work.
Yet some expressed frustration that while the students were in the schools, teachers were unable to join them in the classroom since a contract agreement has yet to be made.
“If you want to keep the schools open, to have them just kept by a babysitter, by all means do that. But I think we should be fighting for the teachers to be back in their rightful place, to have a fair contract that we may do our jobs and do it efficiently,” said a 24-year teacher at the John Milton Gregory Math and Science Academy in North Lawndale.
She went to Gregory as a young girl, and wants the children enrolled today to have the same educational opportunities as she did. She teaches eighth grade, and with 35 kids in one class and no teacher aides, it is impossible to give the students the attention they deserve, she said.
“We’re doing more behavior control than teaching because of so many kids in the classroom. The needs are great,” she said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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