Voices of the Strikewave: Chicago Public Schools

It was labor day weekend in Chicago.  A number of Chicago teachers were sitting around, talking at a backyard barbeque a few blocks from the United Center, now a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.  It was a diverse crowd of teachers, most in their 40’s and 50’s.  A lot of them talked about teaching, their frustrations, and what they were doing to prepare for a strike.  Here are their stories, as best as I can recall.


A white male, I think he called himself John, was lounging in a chair, sipping a beer.  He drives Lyft; makes about $200 a day.  He was a social studies teacher for 19 years, then his school was turned around.  The school had a lot of poor black kids with low test scores.  All the staff were fired, and they hired new staff to “turn it around.” Principals were told not to hire people from turnaround schools, unless there was no one else available.

I replaced Janice Jackson at South Shore when she was promoted.  (she is now the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools) I won awards as a substitute teacher three years in a row.  But I wasn’t on track to be permanent.  Handling 8th grade is challenging.  They spent months reviewing the appropriateness of my release; I thought they would reinstate me.  I went to Oscar DePriest, a few others; I got three job offers.  But the district always overruled the principals.  They won’t hire those released from turnaround schools.


Sarah, a special education teacher at a charter school who used to work for the district in Little Village was talking about her summer vacation.  The conversation shifted to her frustrations about teaching at start of the school year.

Special ed schools just got position numbers.  We are so backlogged in hiring.   There are more vacancies than we’ve ever had.  They didn’t  approve special education appeals until August.  Parents at my school just won three appeals .  Hundreds of special ed positions were approved the 1st week of August.   Students are tested to see what sort of paraprofessional assistance and specialized support they need in their Individualized Education Plans, or IEPS, which are part of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Schools appealed denied positions, downtown.  They are claiming, they put in appeals in June, don’t tell me they [the board] didn’t work on appeals all summer?

The budget came out at the end of April.  They [the positions] didn’t get approved until August.  Special ed teacher went to the suburbs—no one is going to wait that long and not know if they have a job the next school year.

They are just posting positions for this school year, and its already labor day.  Position numbers were not released until the first, in some instances the third week of August, or so they claim.  CPS doesn’t want to fill these positions.  We got 18 Aldermen to sign a letter and it still took that long.

This is their way of not funding special needs students; and it’s even after the state took over their special ed program after lawsuits against a round of layoffs in 2015, and drowning SECAs (Special Education Classroom Assistants represented by SEIU) and teachers in paperwork after that to justify their jobs.  They post the positions so late, they hope no one will be available to fill them, so they don’t have to hire.

Sarah began talking about how she organized to support the charter school strike last school year.

We tracked every single person, there was social media.  Sure, we had a big meeting, but it was the prep work that counted, talking to teachers one to one.

Social media is not a short cut.  But at the same time, social media was critical.  It helps build excitement and support, and connect folks from different schools who otherwise we wouldn’t be in touch with each other.

The hard thing is people are drowning.  You’re in class all day, you never see each other, then you leave.  You do your work [lesson planning, grading, etc..] at home.

We’d have our first meeting on Friday at my new school.  We’d buy food, set the agenda.  We have benchmarks, ways to measure concretely if people are supportive.  Are they wearing red?  Will they come to a union meeting?  Will they vote yes on a straw poll prior to the strike authorization vote?  How many are passing out flyers to parents?  We would assign each teacher a task to flyer the parents of their kids to explain what we were fighting for.  How it was about their children’s education.  There were mandatory parent teacher conferences; K-2 this day, grades 3-5 this day.  You’ll get everyone, or at least half the people in a week.  We wouldn’t wait for the union; we would make our own flyers.  You have to assess everyone [each coworker] 10 times.  Before the union meeting people would text and call people to remind them, and before the strike vote.  We had four meetings, two at different times each day.  Best attended is during PD [personal development] day.  There were teachers who switched from being SECA, who were new.  They all understand.

We did joint meetings with SEIU members at our schools.  The whole building was there.

Leaders in each school would divvy up the list of co-workers, and each take responsibility for talking to a specific group.  We would get ten people to speak up for it [voting yes on a strike vote].  You need the leaders of different cliques.  You need the outliers, not the usual suspects who complain, but the people who can sway cliques.

That’s how we got unanimous support for our strike in 2012, and the charter school strike last school year.


Miss Bivens

Miss Bivens had been a special education teacher at Agassi, and had been a teacher 34 years.  She started as a bilingual kindergarten teacher.  Miss Bivens is black, with short graying hair.  Her partner was outside on the patio.  She wore peacock earrings and a yellow orange shirt.

I worked with autistic kids in the 8th grade.  I once sang the national anthem at Wrigley Field on teacher appreciation day; I was right there with Babe Ruth’s daughter and grandson.

I would sing the national anthem on the intercom every morning, and one day this guy came in wearing a suit; he must have heard me singing.  He gave me his card, asked if I would sing at the Cubs home game.  I paid him no mind, until a few years later he came by again.  The kids made me do it.

Miss Bivens has had seven surgeries on her back over the past five years.  She has been out on workers compensation, and recently retired due to her disability.

Our principal was first a teacher at our school.  We didn’t get along, so when she came back, she had it in for me.  She would always dump on those she didn’t like and play favorites.  She was sleeping with, had an affair with a security office.  One day her husband came by, and was looking for her.  They were doing it outside and she came by to meet him, wearing the other man’s coat,  We were all sure they were going to get caught, but no one said anything.

I taught eighth grade, then sixth, then back to eighth.  They gave me a  science storage room as a classroom.  I cleaned it up, put in plants, tidied it up.  To think! I moved out all that science equipment, that stuff, and all that junk.  I worked all summer fixing that classroom.

One year I was teaching 8th grade.  My special education assistant, well let’s just say she was special herself, and I had a difficult class, and was short an aide.   I had five non-verbal and four non-English students.  We were going to go on a field trip.  I didn’t want to go, because we were short staffed, but that principal made me.  I had a runner, he just darted off.  I grabbed hold of him, like we are supposed to hold him from behind.

She motioned crossing her arms as if to hug herself.  He lifted me on his back, and started running, and I was just clinging on for dear life, all through traffic on Diversey avenue, which is a really busy street.

When it was all over, and he calmed down, we got out of the street.   I had this massive pain, and I just collapsed right there.  They called the ambulance and I was taken to the hospital; ended up having seven surgeries.

But I’m not mad.  I mean I am.  This principal had it out for me, and she put me in an unsafe situation, but I’m strong, and I don’t let the pain, the anger, run my life.


The school quality rating policy is based on test scores, attendance, and causes underfunding of the schools that need the most support.  It impacts morale.  They use data to shame us.  Then they stomp on your neck till you want to die.

Student based budgeting is a terrible idea, and the evaluation system.  They set us up to fail.  Our budget is determined by our enrollment.

The SQRP [School Based Quality Rating System] measures are tied to test scores.  It put schools and students at a disadvantage; it pits schools against each other.

How about not grade grade schools with these no child left behind test scores?  SQRP impacts 73% of schools with a level 2 or 3 rating—it’s not a real statistic.

If you go on the school webpage, where parents go to decide where to send their children, they have  level 1, level 2, level 3; now five weird categories of schools.  Level 1 is green.  With Level 2 or 3, your school looks terrible, It’s dark red.

The level 2 and 3 schools, they are all black schools. 100% black, or at least more than 50%.  Now look at special ed rates; they are high, but not quite low enough cognitive functions to be in a [special ed] cluster.

On the micro level on 104th and Wentworth, is Langston Hughes Elementary, a neighborhood school.  Lavizzo is three blocks to the south.

The principal at Lavizzo opened its border to admissions, it’s a selective enrollment school. There is a gifted program in the school.  They told parents with kids with IEPs- and high minutes (need a lot of paraprofessional support), to go to Langston Hughes, they send out tougher kids, we’d take them at Langston Hughes, because we need the money – because of student based budgeting—so we were pushed down to level 2.  Five years ago they changed the rating level –  in 2013.  1, 2, and 3, now there are steps in between.  The rating system has a perfect correlation to poverty.  They changed it because the charter schools were rated badly.

So Lavizzo went to level 1, Langston Hughes, level 2.  Then the network came down and stepped on our neck.  It became a death spiral.  Kids with stable families, what school are they going to choose?  One school is in red, one is green.  The red schools were left with families whose parents were just checked out or families with kids with disabilities.  We had a lot of homeless kids, a lot of foster kids.

I had at one girl who was staying in a shelter on the west side.  They came down to me to address student attendance.  How about address her housing?

Charters do an even better job than neighborhood schools at screening out kids.  They have school advertising.  We went door to door to recruit parents to send their kids to our school.

Parents were saying we’ve heard bad things about the school.  So demoralizing.

They closed Kohn elementary.  Dumped the kids on Langston Hughes.  The deeper poverty pocket went to Kohn.  They combined them with Langston Hughes.  I mean, they used to have staggered release times at the different schools to avoid gang fights.  In 2014, school exploded; the first year there were brawls in the hall.  The remaining students with stable parents wanted out.  There was a drop in enrollment.  They had layoffs, again, because of student based budgeting, seven times in three years; mid-year in November and January.  They’d cut teachers, combine classes, redo the special education schedule.  It was what they called “Holding Schools Harmless.”

Families in poor neighborhoods wait to sign up for kindergarten. You look at enrollment in July, then the first day of school there is one teacher and 42 kindergarteners in a high poverty neighborhood; 10 students with Individualized Education Plans- with either physical, behavioral, or learning disabilities.  Then a bunch more enroll at the last minute, and we have to scramble to find teachers and subs—it throws us all off.  How are you able to teach in that environment?

This is the problem with student based budgeting.  High homeless rates impact attendance, which impacts school funding, which undermines the schools that are supposed to help kids from these backgrounds.  With unstable housing our students are floating from couch to couch, they are in and out of shelters.  CPS has been punishing schools that serve those kids.

With 37 kids in a class, they combine classes.  They’ll have dual curriculum for 4th and 5th graders and 7th and 8th grades are split.  They have these ½ splits, with a divider down the middle of the room.  There are not enough staff.  Social workers are only there two times a week.  Everything they did was wrong.

They’d come down and bully us, saying that we’re bad teachers, shame us for our test scores.  We had no support- and then would be hit with another round of budget cuts.  Then they’d leave.  Good luck with that!

You don’t understand.  I was there four years.  Five out of 25 CTU staff during that time were assaulted, hospitalized by parents or students.

Kids bringing in weapons, contraband, other stuff.  Then the special ed district refused therapeutic placements for a kid with severe mental health issues multiple psychiatric hospitalizations.  8th grade started a petition said they were afraid of her; she finally was given a placement.

Experienced teachers cost more, with student based budgeting, they have a fixed funding level .  Two new teachers cost the same as one old teacher.  So older teachers get trapped or cut out. They are using the eval system to target veteran educators, they give them low ratings as an excuse to get rid of them

Now they say there is a teacher shortage.  It’s a manufactured crisis.  A few clear cut changes could fix this immediately.

There is this competitive hunger game school choice policy.

We used to enjoy our jobs had more freedom.   It’s hard working with kids in poverty, but people could make a career in it.   They should invest in these communities.  Art, field trips, creative projects.  Ton of other simple stuff.

Rahm lengthened the school day.  It got rid of our time to collaborate, prep.  We walk in at the same time as kids at 9 am, there is chaos, did the subs show up?  Is there noon coverage?  We had to shuffle, and scramble, there is no one to cover?  No ones with 1st grade.  Shit, it’s so stressful.  It’s a safety issue.  30 minutes.  Massive vacancies.  Special ed vacancies  Lost planning time.  Five-year-olds left unsupervised.

People didn’t understand how bad they fucked it  .  Daley started it.  Rahm did more faster, came in like Argggghhh…  The evaluation system, the longer school day.  Every change they made.

We need to clean house of all people who bought into the ideology thy believe teachers and unions were the problem.  That whole group of upper management folks, they believe it, or they are paid to believe it.  Janice Jackson has a conscious, but Rahm insisted she follow policy, close schools, she did it anyway.

Claypool [one the many CPS CEOs to resign after being accused of fraud] balanced the budget on special-ed students.

They have no desire to educate poor black kids.  They want them gone.  In Bronzeville, they’ve kicked out all the poor black kids.  It used to be that professional blacks could buy a house around here.  Karen Lewis, and even Janice Jackson, are on Ellis and 40th—east of Cottage Grove.  I went there once, to Karen’s house.

They pushed out public housing, other people moved in, at first black middle class now in North Kenwood, 35th and Prairie, more white people.

What gets me so frustrated are all these “woke” people.  They say, why don’t you teach about Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day?   I saw this on Facebook.  I hate when people are talking about this type of stuff.  They didn’t even have history at Langston Hughes elementary.  You can’t even teach about dead white men—nothing!

They teach to the test.  For the reading section, you have to be able to pull from a text evidence to support ones argument.  Don’t think too much, just go with what the words say.  That’s what teaching to the common core does, teaching to the test.  So we focus on that, and don’t teach history.


Cynthia is a Special Education Classroom Assistant who lives on the west side of Chicago, and a leader in Service Employees International Union Local 73.

Rent is going up, even on the west side, as far west as Garfield Park, even further.  You see all the condos and cranes.  They keep pushing us further and further out.  I see these, you know, these people, walking their dogs in the morning.  In the summer, we get laid off and go on food stamps and welfare.  We don’t get unemployment.  They say we can get seasonal jobs in the parks, but not everyone applies.  It’s one week in February, a real short window.  We’re ready to strike.  It’s our time.  We’ve had no raises in how long?


  1. We marched with the teachers from Northside Action for Justice and the Alliance for Community Services. Now Liefoot was to reopen CPS without providing adequate vaccinations.

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