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In Chicago Public Schools classrooms, 36 is a crowd

With budget priorities elsewhere, some schools don't have enough teachers or space.

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Over the last few weeks I've been regularly talking with a public teacher named Erika Wozniak about the 36 kids in her fifth-grade classroom at Oriole Park elementary—go Panthers!—on the city's far-northwest side.

Wozniak's one of my favorite people, if only because she had the guts to lead a one-woman crusade to try convincing DePaul University, her alma mater, to get out of that god-awful tax increment financing deal in the South Loop. You know, the one in which Mayor Emanuel is diverting tens of millions of dollars from our public schools, like Oriole, to help DePaul build a basketball arena.

Alas, DePaul stayed in the deal.

Just so you know, Oriole Park is one of the bright lights in the Chicago Public Schools constellation—a high-scoring neighborhood school whose student body is largely made up of the children of cops, firefighters, and teachers.

But it's dreadfully overcrowded. For instance, there are 72 fifth-graders but only two fifth-grade teachers. That means each class has 36 students, even though the teachers' union contract says no fifth-grade class should have more than 31.

As any teacher will tell you, it's much harder to teach if your class is overflowing. In fact, most civilized societies won't tolerate more than about 24 kids in a classroom.

I'm thinking now of the schools attended by the sons and daughters of our ruling elite such as, oh, the University of Chicago Lab schools, Francis Parker, Latin, and of course the grammar schools in Wilmette, the mayor's hometown.

But as we all know, the bar's always a little lower in Chicago. In her seven years at Oriole Park, Wozniak has never had a class with fewer than 34 kids.

After much pleading and begging, the Oriole Park parents convinced Mayor Emanuel and his board of education to build them an extension.

Thank you, Mr. Mayor!

Except that the extension won't be finished until next year—so it doesn't help matters now. Plus, there's not enough money to hire another fifth-grade teacher, so even if that extension were completed, 36 students would still be packed into Wozniak's classroom.

And why doesn't CPS have enough money to hire another fifth-grade teacher at Oriole Park?

If you ask the mayor, he'll probably launch into a diatribe about having to make pension payments to those aforementioned cops, firefighters, and teachers.

You know, I'm starting to wonder if there's a correlation between the mayor's disdain for municipal retirees and his brother's disdain for geezers in general.

As you might have heard, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel recently wrote an article in which he said he didn't want to live past the age of 75 and suggested it might be a good call for most of the rest of us too.

That would save on a lot of pension obligations, wouldn't it, Mayor E.?

Actually, you don't hear the mayor talk too much about pension obligations as we head closer toward February's election. That's partly because he's facing an insurrection from CPS parents—like the ones at Oriole Park—who don't want to hear any more lame-ass excuses for why he can't figure out how to adequately fund the public schools.

Especially when he somehow found tens of millions of dollars to waste on stuff like that DePaul basketball arena.

Hold it! This just in: Wozniak called to say that CPS magically discovered the money to pay for an additional fifth-grade teacher for Oriole Park, to be hired before the end of the year.

There will now be 72 kids divided among three teachers, meaning 24 kids in classroom.

I'm starting to think that maybe Mayor Emanuel wouldn't be so bad if we had an election every year.

But back to Oriole Park. Though CPS magically found the money to hire another teacher, there still isn't any additional space. So now the problem will be how to rearrange the daily schedule so three classes can be accommodated in two classrooms.

In CPS, it's always something, as the noted educator Roseanne Roseannadanna once put it.

In the meantime, I recently visited Wozniak's class to see what teaching 36 kids is really like.

The first thing I noticed: yeah, it's crowded. No joke. Kids bump into each other just trying to get in and out of their chairs.

Also, it's noisy, even if the kids are just quietly working together on projects. And it's almost impossible for any student to get one-on-one attention from the teacher.

"With 36 kids you're talking a lot of little people that I have to make sure are physically and mentally OK," Wozniak says. "I have to divide my attention between all of them. There's only so much teacher to go around."

That day's lesson was about the structure of a cell. The kids dutifully looked into microscopes, studying bits and pieces of an onion. Eventually, however, they couldn't help noticing that some stranger—i.e., me—was sitting at their teacher's desk.

So Wozniak said: "Boys and girls, we're lucky to have a journalist with us today."

Which may be the first time those words have ever been uttered in Chicago.

With that I'm asked to address the class. "I will answer any question," I told the kids. "My life is an open book."

Immediately, hands shot up. "Do you know any celebrities?" asked the boy I called on.

"It depends on how you define celebrity," I replied, sounding every bit as cagey as the mayor at one of his City Hall press conferences.

"Have you met Jay Cutler?" the kid fired back.

All eyes looked up in expectation. Unfortunately, I had to confess that no, I've never met Jay. But I told them that once, many years ago, I met Rahm Emanuel.

The class was not impressed.

All in all, I had a swell time. Ms. Wozniak, you have some great kids in your class. Like CPS students everywhere, they deserve much more than we give them.

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