Striking teachers say paychecks are the least of their problems | News | Chicago Reader

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Striking teachers say paychecks are the least of their problems

At an Englewood elementary school, teachers and staff describe working conditions that hurt kids most.

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Special education teacher Herb Singleton has taught at Bond Elementary for three years, and went there himself in the 1970s. - MAYA DUKMASOVA FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Maya Dukmasova for Chicago Reader
  • Special education teacher Herb Singleton has taught at Bond Elementary for three years, and went there himself in the 1970s.

As the sky turned pink and baby blue on the east end of 71st Street in Englewood, teachers and staff from Carrie Jacobs Bond Elementary School began to arrive for a four-hour picket on the first day of their strike over stalled contract negotiations with Chicago Public Schools. Bundled up with union T-shirts pulled over thick hoodies and warm coats, they exchanged cheerful greetings, set up a table of donated food for kids, and handed out picket signs. “On strike for my students,” many of them read. 

The Chicago Public School district is the third-largest in the country and includes more than 600 schools educating more than 360,000 children. The Chicago Teachers Union represents more than 25,000 teachers and staff, many of them, like those at Bond, working in conditions of severe austerity. After months of negotiations CTU authorized a strike because the district—whose $7.7 billion budget is separate from the city of Chicago but which is administered by mayoral appointees—has refused key union demands that impact working and educational conditions. Though the union is demanding a better wage proposal and a three-year contract (instead of the five-year contract that the city wants), the striking teachers and staff in front of Bond told the Reader again and again that their main concern is unmanageable class sizes and the lack of nurses, social workers, school counselors, and other support staff at their school. The union wants the district to enshrine Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign promise of “staffing schools with full-time nurses, social workers, and librarians” into a contract. 

Bond sits on a stretch of 71st Street renamed for Emmett Till, in an attendance boundary where the median income is around $25,000 and nearly half of the residents live below the poverty line. Its roughly 270 students are 95.2 percent Black and 99.6 percent low income. A quarter have special education requirements, and nearly 40 percent have transferred in or out of the school in the last year. 

“They’ve been exposed to a lot of trauma,” said Herb Singleton, a special ed teacher for fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders and a 12-year veteran of CPS who was picketing in a red hat to match his sign. “There’s a lot of domestic violence. They see people that have been murdered lying in the street for hours; sometimes it’s their relatives. The anger that arises from that needs to be addressed by social workers.” Singleton grew up in Englewood and went to Bond himself as a kid in the 1970s. He said that violence in the neighborhood was “more widespread” back then, but the school had more resources to help students. Now, like other teachers and staff, Singleton said he spends much of his day attending to student discipline rather than focusing on teaching. Many of the students have young parents and chaotic home lives, he noted, so teachers have to take on parental as well as pedagogical roles.

Like many other CPS schools, Bond lacks a gym teacher, art classes, music, and foreign language instruction. However, it’s luckier than some schools, especially those serving primarily Black students—Bond has a librarian and a full-time guidance counselor, Tijuana Gipson. Still, due to an overall staffing shortage, Gipson explained over the sound of exuberant honks from passing traffic, she’s not in a position to fully attend to students’ needs. Guidance counselors provide social and emotional skills training to full classes, smaller and more specialized groups of students, and in one-on-one sessions. When they teach full classes they’re technically not supposed to play a disciplinary role but instead come into a classroom already staffed by its permanent teacher. This way, students are better able to develop a therapeutic relationship with the counselor, whom they see as a neutral presence and not someone who punishes them for misbehaving. But, due to short staffing, Gipson has to handle classrooms alone to relieve teachers during planning periods. “I’m helping provide that break for the teachers,” she explained, “and that kind of erases the boundary of school counselor/advocate to put me in a disciplinarian role. It creates a conflict for the students—can I trust her or not?” 

Bond Elementary School in Englewood is struggling with a staff shortage and overcrowded classrooms. - MAYA DUKMASOVA FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Maya Dukmasova for Chicago Reader
  • Bond Elementary School in Englewood is struggling with a staff shortage and overcrowded classrooms.

Gipson, who came to Bond at the beginning of this school year after teaching in private schools, said that she has to handle up to three planning periods per day, hour-long classes that kids often see as a break from their regular teachers. She said she can easily spend 20 minutes just getting students settled enough to learn. It’s particularly challenging because it takes away valuable counseling time and relationships from kids who need them most. “There’s anxiety. There’s signs of depression, there’s a lot of self-esteem issues, and this on top of coming from impoverished areas,” she explained of her students, adding that their combativeness and inability to sit still are often responses they’ve developed to trauma that she’d prefer to spend her time addressing directly. Still, she emphasized that things are worse for some of her colleagues in even more underresourced and overcrowded schools.

Not a single one of the teachers and staff picketing in front of Bond mentioned wages when asked about their top personal reasons for striking. A special ed teacher new to CPS this year described passing out a few weeks in due to consecutive 14-hour days with far too many administrative and case-management responsibilities in addition to her teaching load; a 31-year veteran special ed teacher said she regularly buys students warm clothes and other necessities and juggles several classes that are supposed to have one-on-one support staff for nonverbal students with severe learning disabilities alone. (Last year the state stripped control of special education from the district for systematic delays and denials of services.) A security guard and a classroom assistant listed half a dozen other jobs they perform at the school, from washing uniforms to changing diapers to helping with schoolwork. Everyone complained about the per-pupil funding formula still in use in the district, which allocates resources based on the number of students at the school rather than their needs.

Second-grade teacher and 14-year CPS veteran Lauren McCue described class sizes of up to 38 students at Bond in recent years, for which she never received a mandated teaching assistant from the district. She’s also had years at the district in which she’s spent up to $8,000 on supplies for her students. “Wages is not what you go through on a daily basis,” she said. “It’s classroom environment, it’s how unfair education is. Teachers love their jobs, they come out for their kids. I want my kids to get everything they can possibly get, from working computers to a matching desk and chair.”

Pressed on the issue of wages, one of the picketers did share a desire to see improved proposals from the city, especially if the teachers have to settle for a five-year contract that may not keep up with the pace of inflation and rising rents and insurance premiums. “We’re not getting paid enough at all, we’re struggling,” said a 29-year-old special ed classroom assistant who asked us not to print her name. She makes $40,000 in her job at Bond and works from 9 AM to 4:30 PM. After that she attends classes in pursuit of a master’s degree in education until 8:30 PM. From 9 PM to 2 AM she works a second job and sleeps between 2:30 and 5 AM. As a single mother of five kids between the ages of two and 14, with a $1,500 monthly rent payment, she can’t spare much more time than that. 

Picketing teachers solicited horn honks from passing cars on 71st Street in Englewood. - MAYA DUKMASOVA FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Maya Dukmasova for Chicago Reader
  • Picketing teachers solicited horn honks from passing cars on 71st Street in Englewood.

The teaching assistant said she was disappointed in Lightfoot’s attitude toward the teachers’ demands after watching last night’s newscast. “You want us to stay in Chicago, we need to be able to survive. If I had this wage increase I don’t need my night job, I’ll be at home more, I’ll be able to focus more in school. But she don’t understand that,” she said. “I regret voting her in.” 

She added that she herself knows that things could be better. As a graduate of Marquette Elementary in Chicago Lawn, she’s seen what more staffing and resources can do for students, and she wishes her kids at Bond could have the same. “We have a lot of homeless students, we bring food for our students, we shelter them, we bring them clothes,” she said. “We’re their parents 7.5 hours of the day. They depend on us, we support them, we encourage them, we go above and beyond.”

As the Bond teachers continued to march up and down 71st, chant, and solicit horn honks from passing cars to the sounds of a Bob Marley song blasting from a portable speaker, a few students arrived to picket alongside or just to say hello and give hugs. A 14-year-old boy in a white hoodie named Gabriel, who graduated from eighth grade at Bond last year, stopped by to greet the special ed teaching assistant and get a handful of change to help him out for the day. He told the Reader he’s for the strike. He’d been new to Bond, but quickly formed relationships and found support there. “I was here for a year, and it was a great experience,” he said. “I felt the love. They welcome you a lot.” Asked if he knew what the strike was about he said his teachers “probably want the money to deal with the problems at school every day. To help the school . . . But some people don’t agree with that, you feel me?”  v

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