Pastors: Resolve contract dispute, include us in strike plans

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This story includes a link below to the list of sites for CPS’ “Children First” program.

As CPS released new details on its strike contingency plan, pastors representing over 100 African-American and Latino churches demanded that CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union come to agreement on a contract, pledged to offer programs for students if teachers strike and charged that CPS has been slow to prepare for a possible walkout.

Cy  Fields, pastor of New Landmark Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park, called for a “24-hour lock-in of all negotiators. No one should rest and no one should sleep until a deal is done.”

The lack of preparation, said Bishop James Dukes of Liberation Christian Center, makes it harder for any contingency plan to be effective.

As of Thursday morning, the pastors said they still had not received word about whether they would be included in CPS plans. But later on Thursday, CPS released a list of Safe Haven sites that included the churches in question.  

Of the more than 100 churches opening up their doors, 59 are Safe Haven sites and will get some CPS funding. The rest of the churches will pay for programs with church funds and assistance from Catholic Charities. The district also released a list of schools that will offer its Children First program.

Dukes predicts the first day of a strike would be spent with churches doing “foot patrol” and knocking on doors to find children rather than actually offering activities.

That happened during the summer, he noted, when his church had jobs for Harper High School students but had to knock on doors to find takers.

Dukes says the group of churches approached CPS a month ago to try to prepare and enroll students for programs if teachers went on strike, but the district told them to wait. “They do not want to completely acquiesce to the reality that a strike may be imminent,” Dukes said.

Those that operate Safe Haven programs have space for at least 9,800 students, but far more churches are participating and “signing up as we speak,” said Pastor Walter Turner of New Spiritual Light Missionary Baptist Church.

The pastors prayed for a resolution and urged CPS and CTU to come together to avoid a strike. “Families are going to be disrupted, homes are going to be put into confusion,” Turner said, predicting that parents would be forced to choose between going to work and caring for their children. “We are here to tell CPS and CTU, just as much as they have their special interests, at the end of the day our children ought to be our special interests.”

The churches are seeking volunteers who have backgrounds in education and youth work, even including current teachers. They will be open from 8:30am until 2pm and will offer conflict resolution and anger management programming, arts and crafts, and help with the college application process as well as two meals a day.

Several pastors voiced concern that a strike could lead to more violence in neighborhoods already ravaged by shootings and homicides.

“We cannot afford to have another child on the street with nothing to do, to be shot down and added to the statistics,” said Bishop Larry Trotter, pastor of Sweet Holy Spirit Church. “We cannot afford an extended summer of killing.” And Robert Belfort, the senior pastor of New Life Pilsen Church, charged that a strike would send children into “a battlefield.”

CPS opens schools as last resort

CPS said Thursday that it “is strongly encouraging all parents to first explore alternative options for their children” such as private child care, before parents enroll students in the district’s “Children First” program. A list of schools offering the program is available here.

“For families that are not able to access alternative options for their children, the Children First plan is a safety net to provide a safe environment, food and engaging activities for these students,” the district said in a news release. The programs will offer reading and writing, arts, sports and computer activities.

The 144 schools that will participate in the program will be open from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm each day, and will serve breakfast and lunch. Parents can sign up students, using the student’s ID number, at www.cps.edu/childrenfirst or by calling 311.

Preference was given to sites with air-conditioning, gyms, cafeterias and computer labs as well as those accessible by public transportation. They will be staffed by non-CTU school employees and Central Office staff, as well as staff from vendor companies or nonprofits that responded to CPS’ request for proposals.

(The lack of air-conditioning in schools has long been an area of concern among teachers. In a Catalyst Chicago survey, 38 of 76 schools that responded had air-conditioning, 24 had air-conditioning in some or most of their classrooms and 14 had no air conditioning, and but not all of them.)

Belfort said CPS and CTU would have to be creative in order to find a resolution. “We, as pastors, have dealt with (having to make) budgets out of nothing,” he said. “We’ve been doing it for over 2,000 years.”

Catalyst Chicago intern Nicki Koetting contributed to this report.