Schools of Thought

Voices of the Chicago Public Schools strike

by Sari Zeidler, CNN

(CNN) Amid blaring horns and intermittent chants, Chicago Public School teacher Xian Barrett called CNN from the picket lines Monday morning.

“I’m a union activist, but most of us are these days,” said Barrett, who teaches law in American society and Chicago history at Chicago’s Gage Park High School.

“At the height, we’ve got about 50 students and our entire staff of about 70 – it’s more like 80 – staffers, teachers, clerks, assistant teachers. And we had a rally, we had a singalong, we picketed the entrances,” he said describing the first morning of a strike that left about 350,000 Chicago students without school today.

Surrounded by supportive staff and students, Barrett explained that in the afternoon union buses and buses furnished by community organizations would come to gather Gage Park supporters and transport them to downtown Chicago, where they expected to join a larger crowd there to support the union that represents nearly 30,000 teachers and support staff.

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"It shows the power of what happens when unions work with students and families directly," Barrett said.

But parents might not stay supportive for long.

Rebecca Labowitz, the mom of a fourth-grade student in Chicago's public schools who runs a blog about the school system, said she started to see a shift in support for the union.

"I feel like people, parents, kind of went in open-minded, understanding that the teachers had some grievances, it's a tough school system to teach in, but then a lot of what was going on with negotiations was really kept secret and behind closed doors and we really didn't know what was going on," Labowitz said. "And then last night as both parties emerged to give their two sides, it appeared last night - we're still getting more details - that the CPS had given in in a range of areas on some of the sticking points but the teachers union had not and were really kind of digging their heels in."

"People were feeling like they're just striking because they want to strike, they're striking on principal, they're striking because they're disgruntled. Are all the reasons they're striking really valid reasons for shutting down this school system?"

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Labowitz noted that the issue is complex, and parents don't all fall on the same side of the line. Crediting her blog, she said that some parents were frustrated with the union while others were out at the picket lines bringing doughnuts to striking teachers.

She also pointed out that the stakes for all students aren't the same.

"If you have a high school student, the stakes are a little higher because kids need ACT scores to get into colleges. Kids who are in sports who are looking for scholarships need to be in these games."

Three students who spoke to CNN by phone from the picket lines agreed that the strike was cutting into their education at a crucial time but said that the strike needed to be settled in favor of the teachers.

One high school student pointed out that he was falling behind in ACT prep and his Advanced Placement classes because of the strike, but he felt that conditions in his school were not adequate for a proper education. Another student at the same school said temperatures were so hot in classrooms that her classmates had passed out. She also said that while her school day had been lengthened, resources were sparse, forcing students to share text books during long days in sweltering classes.

"Most of the issues we're focused on have to do with student learning conditions," Barrett said. "Like class size, the building conditions. It was 96 degrees in my classroom on Thursday because we have no air conditioning."

Bonnie Kenaz-Mara, another blogger and mother of elementary-aged schools in the Chicago Public School system, said she had seen her children's teachers pay for student resources out of their own pockets.

"As a parent, I sincerely hope that some compromise can be reached and a fair compromise can happen soon," Kenaz-Mara said. "But we support them (the teacher's union) no matter how long it takes."

Labowitz suspects that not all parents will have the patience Kenaz-Mara does - and if the strike drags one, it could spell trouble for the union when it comes to public support.

But for now, the strike is in full swing.

"We've got a good chunk of our student body out here. We've got our whole staff, and we're able to spend some time building our community," Barrett said.

"It's really uplifting to be working directly with our students and community to improve the schools. It may not be the ideal situation for that, but we're making it an ideal situation."