Take 5: Contract talks continue, school choice studies, parent involvement

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Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey speaks at a rally before the August 26, 2015, CPS board meeting.

Photo by Max Herman

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey speaks at a rally before the August 26, 2015, CPS board meeting.

As school resumed this week and teachers returned to work without a contract, Chicago Teachers Union delegates are starting to gauge members’ feelings about the possibility of going on strike based on what’s currently being negotiated.

“What will happen is a delegate will have a meeting at school and will ask questions, like how many people in this room would be in favor of striking,” explained CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey, who said the straw polling has been driven by members but is now being encouraged by union leadership.

In 2012, CTU members conducted both straw polling and trial votes at schools prior to the official  strike authorization vote leading up to a strike.

Informal polling aside, it would still be several more months before an official strike vote could take place. Sharkey says there first must be a “reasonable period” of mediated talks, and in the past that’s been about two months.” At that point, if negotiations remain at an impasse, either side could call for the appointment of a three-person fact-finding panel, which has 75 days to suggest a default contract and make it public. If either side formally rejects the contract, there would then be a 30-day waiting period before teachers could walk out.

About a month ago, district and union officials brought in Martin Malin, a professor at the ITT Chicago-Kent School of Law, to mediate negotiations. Sharkey said negotiations are moving along slowly as “there’s a lot of uncertainty” over whether Springfield will agree to give the district nearly a half-billion dollars in relief to close a gaping budget hole.

Sharkey says that for the time being, CPS has agreed to continue “picking up” a 7-percent pension payment on behalf of teachers, even though district officials earlier indicated that under their reading of the now-expired CTU contract they legally did not have to.

“They basically said, ‘We won’t make any representations about the future.’… It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out if they’re still in a $500 million hole, that’s one of the things they’d like to cut.” In addition, Sharkey tells the Sun-Times that CPS is trying to eliminate the step-and-lanes system that grants salary increases based on additional years of service and additional graduate coursework.

2. Hunger strike continues… A CTU organizer and two community activists announced they had joined the hunger strike over the future Dyett High School, bringing the number of strikers to 15. The strike is now into its 25th day. The group has been holding candlelight vigils outside President Obama’s Kenwood home.

CPS announced last week that Dyett would reopen in the fall of 2016 as an open-enrollment arts school with guaranteed access for students in the neighborhood, but the strikers decided to continue going without solid food because the CPS plan didn’t have many of the features they wanted. The strikers want the curriculum to focus on green technology and global leadership and for the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett to be prominently represented on the new school’s planning and design team. They also want Dyett to be a community school that’s open late and offers programs for parents and students.

The campaign continues to attract national media attention. The New York Times highlighted the story on its front page on Wednesday, linking the hunger strike to a list of financial troubles plaguing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s second term. The story includes a powerful video featuring interviews with several of the hunger strikers.

3. Studying ‘choice’ in Chicago … A study out of Johns Hopkins University confirms what a lot of Chicago education observers already know: students from wealthier neighborhoods are more likely attend to high schools close to home, while those from poorer areas opt for schools — both charter and open enrollment — that require lengthy travel.

That’s because affluent families can afford to live in neighborhoods that already have better schools while poor families cannot. However, researchers found that even though students from poor neighborhoods travel far to get to another school, their choice often isn’t any better than the option in their neighborhood. The data track CPS students who were in 8th grade during the 2008-2009 school year.

Julia Burdick-Will, the study’s author, says poor families are more likely than rich families to exercise “choice” in decisionmaking about schools. But “not having to participate in this complicated system is really a privilege. The most advantaged people really don’t have to figure out how to read the Chicago high school book. They don’t have to gather the information or spend a lot of time figuring out if charter school A is better than charter school B,” she told the Huffington Post.

Meanwhile another study related to choice and Chicago schools — this one from New York University — found in a study on school probation in the late 1990s that poorer students were more likely to stay in such schools than were students with more financial resources.

But even when students did flee schools that were on probation, the researchers, found “students circulated from one low-performing school to another, rarely ending up in schools with much higher test scores. School quality upgrades were infrequent both before and after the [school] accountability policy was implemented,” according to a story on the study by the research news site Futurity.

“Our research shows that without directly changing the supply of schooling options offered to families in segregated, poor neighborhoods, policies that expand school choice will have little impact on alleviating the educational inequality they intend to address,” says one of the study’s co-authors, Peter Rich.

Catalyst has been reporting on these trends for years. In a 2008 issue of Catalyst In Depth, Catalyst reported that under the Chicago school choice system, black students travel long distances to flee one low-performing school — only to land at another one.

4. Parent involvement … In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is investing $106 million over the next two years in a program aimed at getting parents at struggling schools more involved in their children’s education. The hope is that it will boost students’ attendance and academic performance. The approach is a radical departure from that of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who focused more heavily on trying to identify and replace weak staff and schools, the New York Times reports.

The goal is to turn 62 schools on a watch list for potential state takeover into community centers that offer services such as medical and dental clinics and classes and counseling for parents. The city spent about $1 million over the summer training parents to go out and knock on doors to invite more parents to get involved. Parent engagement is now part of annual school performance ratings and teachers are required to spend a certain amount of time reaching out to parents each week.

But the Times reports experts don’t agree on whether parent engagement has an effect on academics. Some experts say it’s critical: “The theory is that when parents are more involved, students are less likely to be absent or to have discipline problems, and that parents will give their children academic support at home and will lobby politicians to properly fund schools.” But others say their research shows most forms of parent involvement, such as being part of parent groups or fundraising, have little or no measurable effect.

CPS has invested in recent years in sending “street teams” out before school starts, knocking on doors of parents whose children typically have attendance problems to make sure parents know where their children should enroll. The district spent $200,000 this summer on the program, WBEZ reports, paying special attention to children entering kindergarten and 9th grade, which are considered critical transition years.

5. Summer jobs for at-risk youth … The web site ACES Too High, which focuses on adverse childhood experiences, had a nice story on a Chicago jobs program that targets at-risk youth, including chronic truants and teens who have had run-ins with the juvenile justice system. It profiles one Fenger High School graduate who grew up homeless but whose life “did a dramatic 360” thanks, in part, to the mentors, training and support system he received through the One Summer Chicago Plus program.

Some 2,300 youth in the program work 25 hours per week as office interns, receptionists, retail clerks, cashiers, summer camp counselors, janitors and a range of other positions. In addition, they receive “five hours a week of mentoring, cognitive behavioral therapy and social skills building from a cadre of adult leaders trained in dealing with trauma,” according to the story.

The mentoring piece of the program is meant to ensure the youth “don’t recidivate, to connect them back to their community, to take ownership of what happened [in school and/or the justice system], to understand that pathway leads to long-term justice involvement,” says Evelyn Benitez, a youth services coordinator.

The story cites a recent study on the jobs program out of the University of Pennsylvania, which found that youth who went through the program “committed half the number of violent crimes as youth who applied but could not get into the program.”

A few more notes … It’s worth checking out this week’s New York Times Magazine, which was focused on higher education. There’s a story by Nikole Hannah-Jones that explores how a small, historically black college in New Orleans manages to send more African-American students to medical school than any other college in the country. She also looks at the state of historically black colleges across the country, which make up just 3 percent of all colleges but grant 16 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned by black students. She says these colleges “have written the guidebook on how to educate the nation’s neediest students, but they have always done so with less, and many of these schools are now struggling to survive.”

Also in the Times, there’s a neat video project that follows four pretty typical Detroit public high school students to showcase their aspirations and their post-secondary experiences.

  • Concerned Parent

    “not having to participate in this complicated system is really a privilege.”
    What does CPS do to low/no income families? CPS is forcing parents to apply online only. There will be no paper copy of the 80 page book that lists choices. Not even a class set will be delivered to the elementary schools. Again the privileged will be able to get in the top high schools and CPS will be able to say-oh well, poor parents just did not apply.

  • Northside

    With it being in a contract year you would think that CPS would tell its principals to take it easy on their employees. but of course they are not. it is basically day 4, if you don’t count the first day and principals are already out with their clipboards and judging eyes. instead of giving a hand they are just judging as usual.

  • Concerned Parent

    principals can’t take it easy on teachers as network chiefs are bullying principals.

  • Northside

    Let me first to say in about 10 days MANY MANY teachers will be getting their second “basic” rating that will lead to thier Unsatisfactory rating. that’s probably why cps took so long so they can be sure to relive themselves of the “undesirable” teachers who often are just too old or not hip enough or whatever. makes me mad that CTU has not taken a proactive position for us. what good will talk of a strike do when …in 90 days…many of us may not have a job