West Side families uttered a sign of relief last Thursday with the news that the Chicago Teachers Union had suspended its 11-day strike and that classes for roughly 300,000 students would resume Friday.

“It hasn’t impacted me so much, but it has impacted my children because they’re not in school,” said Austin resident Vanessa Stokes, co-founder of Front Porch Arts Center and manager of her late father’s photo archive.

As a single mother, Stokes would normally drive 30 minutes to and from Linne Elementary School so that her 8th grade son and 7th grade daughter could attend classes, but instead they’ve been at home since teachers walked off the job Oct. 17th.

“It’s a huge inconvenience for everybody, (and it) impacts other things like my business,” Stokes said. “I can’t meet with people that I have on my schedule because I have to be home with them.”

Stokes said she understands why CTU went on strike but also thinks many of the issues could have been avoided if both parties had discussed them earlier.

Last week, CTU reached a tentative agreement that still needs to be voted on by the rank-and-file members. In the meantime, about 25,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, clinicians, nurses and librarians returned to more than 500 schools on Nov. 1.

Union delegates voted 364 to 242 in favor of the 41-page agreement that will help reduce overcrowded classes, add additional prep time for elementary teachers and boost the number of social workers, nurses and special education managers by 2023, among other things. The offer includes a 16 percent salary increase over five years.

During the strike, some West Side students spent time at Austin Town Hall Park, 5610 W. Lake St., and By The Hand Club For Kids, 415 N Laramie Ave.; both offered programs and classes.

“We’re here to support our kids and our families, no matter what the situation,” said Sarah James, senior director of programming for grades K-8 at By The Hand.

From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each school day, By The Hand opened its doors to elementary and high school students needing a place to go; students also could go to any CPS school, where non-unionized staff were present to look after them.

Some, like Aisha Oliver, executive director for Root2Fruit Youth Foundation, have been helping Austin high school students work on their college applications and complete their FAFSA forms.

“I didn’t want students to just have to go to the local park district and sit in a gym. I wanted them to be able to get stuff done,” said Oliver, who has three children, one of whom is a senior at Al Raby High School. “I believe that we have a lot of amazing teachers in Chicago, but I want to make sure that we include our young people in the process.”

Before the agreement was reached Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson said he hoped teachers would get what they were promised by the city.

“All of the demands are reasonable, and they are demands that the mayor of Chicago ran on,” said Johnson, a former CPS teacher. “This contract will be a substantial boost for the neighborhood schools in Austin.”

Johnson, who taught social studies and reading at Jenner Academy Elementary and Westinghouse College Prep High School, said he believes what CTU was seeking was more than needed in Austin and other West Side neighborhoods.

He was among many who rallied last week outside Oscar DePriest Elementary, 139 S. Parkside Ave., alongside Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who told the crowd the country is behind them.

“To have the support of Elizabeth Warren for our children in Chicago was an enormous boost to our movement,” Johnson said. “Her fight is front and center right here in Chicago.”

Friday morning, Johnson issued a statement praising both CTU and SEUI Local 73 for taking the action they did to use their “moral authority and collective power to usher in a new day for Chicago and education justice for our students.”

He also noted that the West Side has the highest concentration of homeless students in the city. “The new labor agreement with CTU will ensure that our homeless students and their parents have access to coordinators and resources so they can locate housing and critical human services.”

Corry Williams, the founder of 345 Art Gallery, 345 N. Kedzie Ave., said that his establishment works with afterschool programs at nearby schools. He said he was glad the strike is over. 

“With the kids back in school, we can up our [after-school] program,” he said. “The strike really hurt us, because we built relationships with the schools. The strike stopped all of that, but we’ll catch up.” 

CONTACT: austintalks.org@gmail.com  

Some highlights of the new contract

The new contract would last for five years — one more year than the 2015-19 contract. 

The number of new social workers and nurses CPS must hire will increase each year of the new contract. For example, CPS must hire at least 79 new social workers and 85 new nurses by the start of 2020-21 school year. 

The contract creates a 10-member staffing committee that will be split equally between CPS and CTU appointees to determine which schools have the “highest need for additional staffing” based on factors like local poverty rates and existing staffing levels. The committee will determine which schools will get extra funding to hire librarians, restorative justice coordinators, counselors and “other positions as determined by the principal and the [Local School Council].” 

The new contract allots time for naps for pre-K students. 

To help homeless students, the contract calls for CPS to hire School Community Representatives who would be responsible for helping students get enrolled, ensuring they get transit cards and connecting them and their families with resources. Schools that have between 75 and 139 homeless students would need to hire at least one SCR, and any schools that have 140 or more homeless students would need to hire at least two SCR. 

One of CTU’s major issues has been class sizes. While the caps haven’t changed, the contract sets up the Joint Class Size Assessment Council to look at oversized classrooms and recommend ways to either reduce overcrowding or at least add teaching assistants to make the classes more manageable.

The contract increases cost of living adjustments, so that salaries would increase by 3 percent during each of the first three years, and by 3.5 percent for each of the remaining two years. Lower-paid support staff will see their salaries increase by “nearly 40 percent” over the next five years.

The contract “increases the number of sick days that employees can bank sixfold, from 40 to 244,” according to Chalk Beat. “Those days would not be paid out when a teacher leaves the system permanently but could be used to extend leaves.”

The contract sets up a pool of substitutes, ensures that teaching assistants can’t be pulled away from the classroom unless there is an emergency and ensures that teaching assistants will have substitutes. Substitute teachers who work in “high-needs schools” will be paid extra, and CPS is required to provide “financial support and health insurance” to support staff who wish to get certification necessary to become teachers.

CPS and CTU agreed to work with teachers and community organizations to create “inclusive and positive” school environments that would include restorative justice components. 

Igor Studenkov