HUMBOLDT PARK — ChiArts teaching artists are trying to join the Chicago Teachers Union to address the stagnant wages and lack of job security they face, union leaders announced Wednesday.
The union effort comes as ChiArts administrators try to ease tensions with students, who have staged protests in recent months accusing administrators of mishandling a wide range of incidents at the arts-focused high school, from sexual assault among students to the firing of a beloved teacher.
ChiArts is on the West Town and Humboldt Park border at 2714 W. Augusta Blvd. and enrolls about 600 students from across the city, most of them Black and Hispanic.
The school is different from other CPS high schools in that it is funded by the district and private donors, and students get an academic and arts education. Not unlike charter schools, ChiArts has its own board, which operates independently.
Because of this structure, union representation at the school is uneven: ChiArts academic teachers and paraprofessionals are represented by the CTU, but the school’s teaching artists and office staffers are not and can be fired with impunity, union leaders said in a news release.
“Teaching artists at ChiArts have confronted rounds of unilateral pay cuts and chronic job insecurity: because their positions are unprotected, teaching artists can and are fired without reason, no matter their value to the school community,” union leaders said.
Teaching artist Bessana Kendig said she and her colleagues are “excluded from decisions that affect [their] safety and livelihood.”
“We dedicate our time and artistic energy entirely to our students, and it’s time we get to share our input and collaborate for the benefit of the entire school culture and community,” Kendig said in the release.
A teaching artist in the school’s department who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions said “decisions are being made about us without us.”
“We are part-time employees, but the expectations are that we will function like our full-time counterparts without any of the bargaining power they have,” she said. “We want a seat at the table.”
An effort to fold the school’s teaching artists and office staffers into the union is underway so those school employees have “the same basic rights and valued voice as union teachers and support staff,” unions leaders said.
The campaign, which is in the early stages, has the support of the school’s union teachers and the union as a whole.
“Every educator is a valued member of ChiArts’ community — whether they teach biology full-time or classical ballet part-time,” union President Jesse Sharkey said in the release.
“Every one of these educators works their hearts out for our students, and we’re committed to supporting them in their effort to join our CTU family and our mission to create and sustain the schools our students deserve.”
Asked for comment, the ChiArts board issued a statement saying, “We respect the right of our arts teachers to explore union membership.”
Meaningful Steps Toward Change Or ‘Making Noise’?
The union drive comes on the heels of a tense battle between ChiArts students and administrators.
Hundreds of students marched the perimeter of the school last month to protest administrators for creating a “toxic” school environment where students don’t feel protected from sexual misconduct among their peers at the school. Students also used the protest to show support for teaching artists, who they said deserve increased job protections, and to lament the firing a favorite teacher.
As part of the outcry, the parent-led group ChiAction demanded better communication and increased transparency from the administration.
Administrators have taken meaningful steps toward resolving the school’s issues since the uproar, including holding sexual assault training for faculty and staff, bringing in an independent organization to review the school’s human resources department and adding parents to the board, according to a board briefing shared with the school community.
The school’s former principal, Teresa Milsap, previously told parents school leaders were working with district officials to investigate students’ claims, “and provide our students with supports, additional safety measures, and a space to voice their concerns.”
Milsap has since taken a leave of absence. She’s been replaced by Lorraine Cruz, who most recently led Youth Connection Leadership Academy High School, according to an email obtained by Block Club. Cruz will hold the position through the end of the year or until Milsap returns, the email said.
Kendrick Jackson, one of the students who helped organize the protests, said communication between administration and the study body has improved in recent weeks. For example, administrators asked students to help choose the next head of the theater department, he said.
“Never … have we ever gotten board briefings. That’s a blessing that has come out of all of this,” Jackson said.
But two teaching artists said administrators should be doing more to make teaching artists and students feel heard and protected as the union drive continues.
“The people in charge are making noises that they know mistakes have been made, but there has been no apology or acknowledgment of harm,” teaching artist David Blixt said.
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