As contract talks heat up, teachers union seeks stronger ties with parents

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In recent weeks, teachers at dozens of schools have made efforts to reach out to parents about issues ranging from the longer school day and school funding to class sizes to teacher pay.

The latest efforts represent a new target for outreach, as the Chicago Teachers Union has long collaborated with the city’s grassroots parent groups. Julie Woestehoff, the director of Parents United for Responsible Education, noted that her group was founded by parents who wanted to support the last teachers’ strike, in 1987, and believed that “politicians and bureaucrats weren’t doing their job.” Woestehoff spoke at a panel held for DePaul University teacher candidates on Wednesday.

Organizing parents is part of an effort to strengthen the union’s position as it faces an ongoing battle with CPS administration over how the district is implementing the longer school day, as well as contentious negotiations over teachers’ next contract. The current contract expires on June 30 and teachers could move to a strike authorization vote as soon as this spring.

The union and the district are currently in fact-finding, one of the final steps of a lengthy, legally required pre-strike process.

But good relationships with a community organization don’t necessarily “trickle down to the school,” says CTU organizer Matthew Luskin.

As the CTU seeks to expand its school-level outreach to parents, controversy over the longer day has bred an increasing number of parent organizations. Both 19th Ward Parents and Parents For Teachers (formed specifically to advocate for teacher issues) are part of the Coalition to Organize Democracy in Education, which is pushing for an elected school board. So too are the CTU and the older Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, a longtime ally of the union.

Raise Your Hand, which took root several years ago in response to a school funding crisis, does not back CTU. But “we want to make sure that outside of whatever’s happening with these political entities, parents and teachers don’t end up having a soured relationship,” co-founder Wendy Katten says. “We want to encourage people to keep the dialogue open.”

To that end, Katten appeared on a panel at a March event for active union members. Representatives from the group are participating in three education forums organized by other groups around the city this month, two of which focus on teacher-parent collaboration. The second, on Saturday, May 5, is sponsored by Teachers for Social Justice.

Raise Your Hand is also in the early planning stages for a forum of its own on parent-teacher dialogue, which will likely be held several weeks down the line.

Luskin says the union is trying to show that its contract organizing efforts are “part of a real debate around the direction of the school system and school funding.”

“There’s a real challenge around funding, resources and attention to [neighborhood] schools,” he adds.

This winter’s uproar over school closings and turnarounds, opposed by many parents and teachers, laid the groundwork for the current outreach by giving teachers experience collaborating with parents, Luskin says.

“I think it helped build a lot of confidence among our members that people aren’t against us,” Luskin says. “Parents trust their child’s teacher… more than an appointed member of the Board of Education.”

Contract organizing committees, which Luskin says have now taken root in hundreds of schools, have been tasked with outreach. The efforts have ranged from teachers showing up to local school council meetings – CTU gave teachers a sample letter to send to LSCs about the importance of a “better school day” – to a parent night at Nettelhorst Elementary featuring a talk by union President Karen Lewis.

Teachers have also presented their views at principal-organized parent meetings about the longer school day. That’s what kicked off organizing efforts at Prieto Elementary. In late February, bilingual program coordinator Andrea Montgomery – a union delegate – offered to share the CTU perspective in one such meeting.

“When I told the parents about merit pay and the 2 percent raise and the other issues [with the longer day], they were outraged,” Montgomery says. There were about 75 parents at that meeting. It was a Monday.

The group started brainstorming ideas for action and settled on the idea of getting a bus to take parents to the school board meeting two days later. A total of 21 parents showed up.

Parents attended the March board meeting as well. “If we are going to have a longer school day, we need the funds to hire more teachers and prepare our teachers,” Prieto parent and bus aide Raiza Rodriguez told the board. The group organized a multi-school town hall meeting about the longer day in late April.

Now, members of Parents For Teachers come to meet with Prieto parents every Monday morning to strategize.

Montgomery credits a positive school climate with building parent support for teachers. “The bottom line is parents believe in their hearts this is their school,” she says.

And, she argues parents will be supportive if a strike vote is called.

“They said, ‘If you walk, we walk,’” Montgomery says. “They have been 110 percent behind us.”