When the Chicago Teachers Union announced that it would strike on Oct. 17—the first teachers’ strike in the city since 2012 — Austin Weekly News reporters spread out to different rallying points throughout the city on the first and second days of the strike (the two were before the paper’s Monday print deadline). These are our sights, smells and sounds. 

Day one (Thursday, Oct. 17, 10 a.m.), outside of DePriest Elementary School, 139 S. Parkside Ave. 

When DePriest Elementary School was rebuilt in 2003, it featured 24 new classrooms and a library/media center. The school, relative to other Chicago Public Schools buildings, is still new. But peel back the school’s modern façade and a problem arises. 

“We have a big library, but no librarian,” said Ackisha Reynolds, a 41-year-old teacher at DePriest who has been in the profession for two decades. “How do you have a library with no librarian? It’s just a room.” 

Reynolds was among the roughly 32,000 educators who took to the picket lines on Oct. 17, the first day of the Chicago Teachers Union strike. Reynolds was on her way downtown to a rally convened by CTU in the Loop, at around 1:30 p.m. 

Before leaving Reynolds recalled the last time the teachers struck in 2012. That year, she picketed outside of Emmet Elementary, at the corner of Madison and Central, and one of the 50 schools that were closed across Chicago by former mayor Rahm Emanuel. 

Reynolds said that she’s been on a pay freeze for the last six years. She was among those teachers who received no back pay after the last strike. 

“Once you reach year 14, you’re on a freeze for six years,” Reynolds said. “I have a master’s degree, and about 30 graduate hours past my master’s. Why am I not compensated for my education and years of experience? It’s not fair.” 

Reynolds said that one of the major sticking points for the teachers is prep time. 

“That’s the time we need to write lesson plans,” she said. “We only get an hour a week. They’re trying to give us two hours a week. How do we do lesson plans, call parents or whatever we have to do in two hours? They’re asking us to do work after school, at home, on weekends, without being compensated.”

DePriest is lucky in one regard, she said. 

“We have a social worker now,” Reynolds explained. “Last year, he was part-time. He had to write letters and circulate signatures in order to be full-time. We’re one of the lucky schools. We have so many kids who have experienced trauma and loss.” 

Day one (Thursday, Oct. 17, 2 p.m.), outside of Chicago Public Schools’ headquarters at 42 W. Madison St. 

Teachers and support staff from public schools across the city converged in front of CPS headquarters in the Loop. 

“This strike is about our voices and our hope for the future,” said Jesse Sharkey, CTU’s president, addressing the crowd. “This is a chance that comes once a generation. We would rather take some pain right now than not have justice for the next several years.” 

Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin said that her support for the teachers comes from a very personal place. 

“I’m a product of Chicago Public Schools,” she said. “My mother was a single parent who raised three kids on her own. My mother was a union worker who worked 12 hours a day and had to rely on Chicago Public Schools to teach her three daughters. I don’t believe a child should have to choose between a teacher, a social worker, a nurse or a librarian.” 

After the rally outside of CPS headquarters ended, a red sea of demonstrators marched in the concrete and steel shadows of the Loop. 

J. Williams (he declined to give his first name), of North Lawndale, walked among them. Williams, a special education teacher at Gregory Elementary School, 3715 W. Polk St. said that the students “deserve their funds, they deserve more support and I’m just here supporting. I’m supporting all of our babies.” 

Day two (Friday, Oct. 18, 9:30 a.m.), outside of Michele Clark High School, 5101 W. Harrison St. 

As one group of teachers stood near a grill (the smell of eggs coating their morning protest), another group of teachers demonstrated on the overpass right off of South Lavergne Avenue and West Flournoy Street. They were joined by students with signs that read: “Hurry up, our education is being affected! Hurry up!!” 

Phyllis Ford-France, a veteran social science teacher at Michele Clark and the school’s charismatic union leader, cut a commanding presence as she walked up Lavergne on her way back to the high school. She wore a red overcoat and a clipboard, and evoked such authority that she made pupils of her fellow teachers. 

“We’re pretty lucky,” Ford-France said. “We have a nurse and our principal makes sure we have resources, but we do struggle with class size and we want pay, which is a universal issue among all teachers in the district.”

Ford-France said that class sizes vary by grade level. At the freshman level, she said, students cram into classes that average roughly 35 students. 

Ford-France, who has been teaching for 16 years, had originally wanted to be an attorney. 

“Then I realized I was broke and needed money,” she said. “Someone told me I should try teaching. I tried and I’ve been teaching ever since.” 

She stayed in the profession, she said, for reasons beyond money. 

“Teachers work extremely, extremely hard,” she said. “They give so much of themselves and are very passionate. You have to have extreme patience.” 

Day two (Friday, Oct. 18, 10 a.m.), outside of John Hay, 1018 N. Laramie Ave. 

A few dozen teachers with signs faced Laramie, prompting an unending cascade of honks from cars whizzing by. Gracie Anderson held a sign that read: “Lori Lightfoot, in a city of corrupt politicians be the [insert photo of a unicorn]. Keep your campaign promises.” For emphasis, Anderson was dressed as a unicorn. 

Marcie Gutierrez, a first and second grade teacher at Hay, said that she was disappointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot. 

“Her election platform had all of the issues we wanted,” Gutierrez said. “Her education platform said she wanted nurses and social workers for every school. We thought she wants what we want, but now that we’re trying to get her to put those things in writing, she doesn’t want to do it. We’re pretty upset.” 

Hay can use a full-time nurse and a social worker, said Gutierrez, who has worked at Hay for 17 years. 

“We have lots of kids with asthma and different things trigger what happens to them, so we need to have someone here without having to call the ambulance every time,” Gutierrez said. “We have a nurse here on Tuesdays. If it’s not Tuesday and you get sick — oh well. We gotta call the ambulance.” 

Was Gutierrez sensitive to CPS’ financial situation? The mayor has said that the city is strained financially. 

“We have money for the rich, but when it comes to these schools on the West and South Sides, we have no money,” Gutierrez said. “It’s funny how they find money when they need it for certain people.” 

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...