CHICAGO — The fabric of this city stretches down the picket line. It threads itself through community centers in century-old buildings, through union halls and churches and restaurants and apartments where protest signs get painted on living room floors. All of these threads converge in the streets as the Chicago teachers strike stretches into its second week, where frustrated, exhausted teachers will pick up their mother’s banners and yell until their voices are hoarse.
At a community center on the north side of the city last week, two dozen teachers, students, and organizers sat around a table to take a break after picketing and before going downtown for a rally outside the Board of Education. At the back of the room, a table was laden with trays of tacos donated by the carnicería across the street, along with rice, pita, hummus, and pastries donated from a nearby Mediterranean restaurant. A pizza got delivered. Someone else brought in a carafe of coffee.
Cindy Zucker, a retired Chicago Public School (CPS) teacher and administrator, was at the center to support the striking teachers and students. She said that for many teachers, the 2012 strike was “a radicalizing moment.” One year after that strike, the school where Zucker taught became one of the 49 elementary schools that the city’s Board of Education shut down. The building, which welcomed its first students in 1909, now houses a private Waldorf School.
“It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Zucker told Jezebel. “You close the schools, so you don’t have a center for your community, and your kids don’t have a safe place to go that they trust, and then people move out.”
Students can also recognize that cycle: Riley Lamarre, a senior at Northside College Preparatory High School, had dyed her hair neon red in support of the strike. “I like standing out there with the teachers because a lot of the stuff that they’re on strike for benefits us, so it feels like the least I can do,” she said.
The demands of the union’s 25,000 members aren’t exactly radical. They want smaller class sizes, a nurse in every school, more school librarians, social workers, and case managers for students who need what’s called an Individualized Education Plan. They want to keep the limited prep time they have. Apart from the strike, many Chicagoans want an elected school board whose members are not hand-picked by the mayor.
All of these asks undercut the narrative—pushed by CPS and the mayor’s office—that the teachers are on strike to give themselves more money. What becomes clear after any time spent on the picket is that the stories you hear are about the conditions inside Chicago public schools, but they’re also about housing, gentrification, health care, food, immigration, transportation. They are stories about cyclical problems faced by generations in the city, and how communities works to stitch together their own safety nets in the face of systemic neglect. Ultimately, they are stories about the future of the city and how to fight for it.
At the picket line outside of Avondale-Logandale Elementary School, which serves more than 600 students from preschool through eighth grade, the first sight is a welcome one: a folding table covered with donuts, bananas, carafes of coffee, a box of toe warmers, and two giant containers of M&Ms. It was one of many reminders that week that teachers are on a god tier when it comes to having emergency snacks on their person at all times.
As a Title I school, nearly all of the students at Logandale come from lower-income families, and more than a third of the students have limited English proficiency. The school is just north of Logan Square, a gentrifying neighborhood where the row houses and taquerías have been rapidly replaced with high-rise condo buildings and cocktail bars. While money continues its steady, predictable flow through different neighborhoods, the picket signs outside dozens of schools across the city point to the places that have been left behind.
Bianca Martinez, a special education classroom assistant at the school, was on the picket line as a member of SEIU Local 73, which represents classroom aides and other paraprofessionals who work in the public schools. All four of Martinez’s children are CPS students, and two of them have special needs. “My kids are affected in more ways than one,” Martinez said, naming the basics: nurses, librarians, social workers. “I want those services for them because they deserve it just as much as any other student that needs it.”
Maribel Lozada started working at CPS in 1994. She teaches 33 students by herself in her bilingual third grade class—20 boys and 13 girls. She described her workdays, which start at 6 a.m. and end at 4 p.m. or later, as exhausting. “You want the kids to get better scores, you want to make them well-rounded? The research states smaller class sizes is always key, at least in the lower grades,” she said. “We’re setting up our kids for failure.”
To someone outside the system, the union’s demands might sound abstract. The difference between having 25 children in a classroom and 35 children in a classroom may sound negligible to someone who has never had to manage a classroom of screaming kindergarteners. (A disclosure here: I teach a first grade class at a private after-school program in the city.) Not all education is scalable, nor should it be. Throwing 35 students in a classroom with one teacher creates an environment that makes it nearly impossible for teachers to teach—and for their students to learn—in a meaningful way.
Three-quarters of Chicago public schools, including Logandale, do not have a school librarian. A nurse comes to the school once a week. If a student gets hurt or has an allergic reaction on one of the four other days of the school week, the school has to call 911.
Amy Steier, a 7th grade special education teacher who started working at CPS in 1996, came to picket along with her 10-year-old daughter. Steier’s four children are all enrolled in CPS. Last year, the sixth grade class she worked in had 38 students. A nurse comes to the school once a week.
Standing next to her daughter, Steier didn’t try to hide the frustration in her voice. “I don’t want to be here doing this. But I have to, because it matters.”
On the Blue Line heading downtown, each stop brought on a new group of protesters joining the strike. It reminded me of the Women’s March, where everyone seemed slightly punch-drunk from the same fizz of energy, the potent mix of euphoria and exhaustion.
Helen Chang, a special education at Pulaski International School, was heading to the rally with another teacher and four boys who had managed to cram into one seat. “We’re used to it!” one boy’s mother, another teacher, joked.
Special education teachers have been on the frontlines of the strike for good reason. In May, an Illinois federal court ruled in favor of eight students and their parents, and found that both the city and state boards of education violated Title VI through “intentional discrimination” against disabled public school students, especially those who came from families with limited English proficiency.
“Oh, we’re furious,” Chang told me. “They’re taking from the most vulnerable students who actually cannot defend themselves, and their families cannot defend themselves.”
Chang told me one of her fellow teachers is in charge of a class of 18 students, all of whom have disabilities. “That’s the size of a regular gen-ed class in some districts. That’s not OK,” Chang said.
It’s not only the teachers, students and parents who have been on the picket line, at a protest, or quietly organizing behind the scenes. It’s also people who know the stakes are bigger than just one classroom, or rather, the stakes are exactly that big.
At a century-old union hall that weekend, members of the Democratic Socialists of America gathered to assemble lunches for CPS students. DSA members from New York, New Orleans, and Arkansas had flown in to help Chicago chapter with the strike. Labor activist Abby Agriesti had been organizing with Bread for Ed, a program that distributes food for CPS students to pick-up locations across the city. “We want to make sure that the strike can continue as long as it needs to continue,” Agriesti said. “This strike is about a Chicago for all, and that means through the process of the strike as well.”
Earlier in the day, they had been flyering Lincoln Yards, the future site of a 55-acre mega-development on the city’s north side. In April, the City Council awarded up to $2.4 billion in public subsidies to the developers behind the project and another mega-development in the South Loop.
They weren’t the only people on the picket who were engaged in community struggles on multiple fronts: Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a Chicago DSA member who represents Logan Square, had to leave the picket at Avondale-Logandale to make a Chicago Plan Commission meeting to advocate for a 100-unit affordable housing development. As he prepared to leave, he talked about the impact of gentrification on school funding. “We have seen our schools suffer and lose resources year after year after year. As the students and their families are displaced from the community, the school is forced to cut down on staff to eliminate additional programming,” he said.
The problems were cyclical—affecting generations in the city as families and community members watched, year after year, as the same problems calcified in their schools. That has made the struggle generational, too: lessons in struggle passed down from teachers and parents and students who have grown up to be either or both in their hometowns.
At the rally on Thursday, I spoke with Quetzalli Castro, a 7th grade social studies teacher and product of CPS. She and four other teachers carried a banner reading, “TEACHERS UNITED - MAESTROS UNIDOS.” Castro and her mother, a CPS social worker on the South side, made the banner together during the 2012 strike, when Castro was in college. “Now I’m carrying it,” she said.
Emma Roller is a writer and teacher in Chicago. She thinks Splinter was a good website. Her Twitter is @emmaroller.