Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chicago Thoughts: Teacher's strike endangers kids

When the Chicago Teacher's Union and the Chicago Public Schools go to war, the kids lose. Whether you support one side or the other, you must also acknowledge the impact that this strike will have on young people. Some of the effects are obvious. There will be no classes, no homework, and no learning. Although the district orchestrated a plan to keep 144 schools open throughout the strike, they will serve as Chicago's largest daycares, not halls of education (if indeed any educating occurred on site in the first place). But the greatest danger to children does not come from academic atrophy, although that is certainly a legitimate worry. It comes from bullets, bats, and blades. At the end of a bloody summer, kids will shelter inside school buildings for brief respite from community violence. Now, Chicago's 404,000 pubic school students will be forced to the streets; out from the sight of teachers, but not from the sights of guns.

The CTU and CPS planned for the eventuality (nay, inevitability) of a strike. Their plan, entitled "Children First", included a number of provisions to protect children during the labor movement. Unfortunately, these strategies stumble short of their stated goals. CPS highlighted the following items from its plan:
  • "Keep approximately 145 school sites open from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday – Friday.
    • Instruction will not be provided, students will participate in positive activities to keep them engaged, including independent reading and writing, arts and journaling, sports activities, computer-based programming, among others.
    • Elementary and high school students would attend separate designated facilities to address their unique needs.
  • Providing daily nutrition services to all students attending a site, including breakfast and lunch.
  • Partnering with City Sister Agencies to provide additional options for families and children such as:
It sounds extensive, and it was definitely a feat that the CTU and the Board could agree to even this much. But as said before, the Children First plan does not address the fears of parents and communities. The plan, and the strike itself, is wildly irresponsible when it comes to children well-being. It causes untold stress to families. It puts extensive labor and financial burden on city services. And most importantly, it recklessly endangers kids. I call your attention to two particularly damaging effects of the teacher's strike and the Children First plan. Again, it should not matter what side of the picket line you are one. All that should matter is the potential danger to children.
  1. 8:30 AM - 12:30 AM is a super low-crime period, so why are schools open then?
    "Children First"? More like "CPS Staff/Faculty First". By keeping schools open early in the morning, CPS has prioritized staff preferences over student livelihood. I am sure that administrators and support personnel would rather get in at 8:30 and leave by one. Kids, however, would rather stay in the building as long as possible to avoid the peak crime hours between 2 PM and 5 PM. Chicago's 8:30 AM to 1:00 PM time frame sees about as much violent crime as SeaWorld.

    There are a lot of reasons that crime is so low in the morning. No single explanation necessarily holds more weight than another. There are fewer people on the street. There is less time in the day for a conflict to develop. There are more people at work. Hell, even criminals need to sleep, and after a long night hanging and slinging and shooting they might be sleeping late. Whatever the reasons, Chicago's violent crime rates are quite low before noon.

    Given that schools are (more or less) safe havens for young Chicagoans, why would you have them open during a time of day where they least need the protection? I understand that this time slot lets kids eat both breakfast and lunch. That, at least, was a smart decision. But what about the safety component? Yes, fights and brawls occur on school property, but with far less frequency than outside those boundaries. And yes, interpersonal conflict that starts in the cafeteria can often find its way to the streets come the dismissal bell. But all things considered, schools are a safe place for kids to spend their day. Teachers break up fistfights. Police officers respond within seconds to any disturbance. Parents can be called. Security cameras monitor even the bathrooms.

    Now, I am not suggesting that these young people have studied crime statistics and cite the data for that time period as reason to stay in scool. Rather, they know that shit goes down in the afternoon. That's when their brother died last year. That's when their cousin was robbed last week. That's when they saw a corpse on the sidewalk. All day, school is a safe haven. During the afternoon and evening, however, the streets are ground zero.

    Closing the schools will have little or no impact on the origination of conflicts. Sure, young gang members won't start their altercations int he classroom. But with school out of session for an indeterminate length of time, they can now start their fights on the corners, in the stores, and in front of houses. There will be even less time for police to intercept news of impending attacks and try and stop them before school gets out. Teachers cannot summon the authorities (or families) to intervene. Conflicts can escalate the instant they begin, and Chicago's youth will be caught in the middle of it.

    Even if crime does not explode over the next days and weeks, the very fact that children were put in such a threatening position is outrageous. Both the CTU and CPS should be ashamed for putting kids in such a situation, especially after the summer violence. Even if McCarthy is to be believed and crime is finally down, the final tallies are still laughable; kids are still in danger. Forcing them to the streets during a time when they most need sanctuary is downright thoughtless.

    Community nonprofits and religious organization can pick up some of CPS's slack, but it should never have come to that. Everyone at the negotiation table should have better considered the potential consequences to children, especially in regards to these ridiculous hours of school operation.
  2. No organized high school sport competition
    Young people need pro-social alternatives to criminal and street life. Public League athletics are a popular activity amongst this city's young people, especially those at-risk young men who often comprise Chicago's gangs and cliques. Practice and competition happens after school, keeping kids under supervision for a few extra, critical hours of the day. Sport instills discipline and a sense of teamwork in young athletes. During the teacher strike, however, there will be no competition in the Public League. And the worst part? Teachers and administrator knew this would happen.

    The Chicago Tribune reported on this decision, made by the Illinois High School Association. As per the IHSA statutes, " 'No team or other entity representing a member school may participate in an interscholastic contest or activity during the time the member school is not in session due to a strike by teachers or other school personnel.'" (Source: http://www.ihsa.org/documents/forms/2012-13/Section%202%202012-13.pdf).
    The IHSA did not need to formally rule, persay, on the issue. Its final decision was in the bylaws the entire time. Any member of CPS or the CTU could have looked at these regulations and seen, months ago, the effect that the strike would have on public school athletics. For those who would argue that neither the CTU nor CPS knew about some obscure rules in an equally obscure PDF, I would counter that it is their job to know. The IHSA regulations impact children, and all educators are in the business of helping those children to the best of their abilities. Sports are a critical part of that equation.

    Admittedly, the IHSA will allow CPS teams to hold practice during the teacher's strike. But for many kids, practice without the promise of competition is like studying for a test that won't be graded. There is benefit in the warmup, but the real motivation is at game time, and most students just lack the personal momentum to care. Some CPS athletes will attend practices, and others will not. For most, the lack of school signals a lack of structured activities. This has an even more pronounced effect on team members who are already involved with, or exposed to, criminal activity. These young men can wander from their routine and into trouble. 

    To make matters worse, many coaches are themselves CTU members. Teachers have to picket, march, strike, and bargain. They cannot cross their lines to coach their students. This means that some students will be unable to practice even if they wanted to. Even the timing is an issue. CPS, like most schools in the country, holds practice after school between 3:00 and 5:00 PM. Remember that time frame from earlier? When the streets get more restless, the coaches keep their kids safe for as long as possible.

    It does not matter whether the strike lasts two days or two weeks. What matters is that during this time, kids lack incentive to attend pro-social after-school activities. Should teenagers think the strike will only last a few days, they will avoid practice because it infringes on their extended summer time. Should it last longer, it will be hard for them to break the lazy routine of no structured activity. Either way, some kids will lose out on the one formal, disciplined, supervised activity that they have all semester. In striking, both parties knew this would happen, and not enough has been done to ensure that young athletes stay on the field.
Again, as far as safety goes, I do not care whether the strike was justified or not. Nor do I care whether the city was justified or not. All that matters is that this labor movement needlessly endangers young people. Even if no overt harm comes of the strike, the fact that kids were placed in such a precarious position at all is quite disappointing. Educators in CTU and CPS should protect their charges before all else. CTU claims that it strikes for the kids. CPS claims that its own policies are for the kids. Whether one side is more righteous than the other does not matter when kids face harm and peril right now.

The Children First plan could have been better designed. The strike could have happened at a different time. More contingencies could have been in place. More concessions could have been made. And for the blind and deaf readers who would place me on one side or the other of the debate, I restate that the only side I am on is that of children. Politics do not matter when angry young men tuck gun into waistband and head outside to kill.

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