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‘I need to finish this,’ CPS’ Brizard says of teacher contract talks

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Updated: September 5, 2012 12:15AM

Chicago Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard beamed Tuesday as he rang the opening-day bell at Roberto Clemente High and declared “we made national news’’ with the system’s move to a longer school day and year — even though the threat of a teachers strike could halt the effort.

Based on weekend talks, a top Chicago Teachers Union official was doubtful the union’s House of Delegates would delay or cancel a scheduled Sept. 10 strike date at its monthly meeting Wednesday. Still, said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey, “you can never say never.’’

Brizard said Tuesday he did not know if enough progress would be made by Wednesday to alter the scheduled strike date but said negotiators had made “steady progress” over the weekend at teacher contract talks that have lingered since November.

“At the same time,’’ Brizard said, “I need to finish this. The stress on families is tremendous ­— parents and children.”

However, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said later negotiators for the city and the teachers union were making “good progress” toward averting a strike.

Any walkout would be the first of the nation’s third-largest school system in 25 years.

As his long-pledged longer school day came to fruition systemwide Tuesday, Emanuel shook hands and exchanged high-fives with students outside the newly-constructed Shields Middle School, 4250 S. Rockwell. His staff allowed TV cameras to shoot video but the mayor did not take reporters’ questions.

Later, at the Marquez campus of UNO Charter School, 2916 W. 47th St., Emanuel told fifth-graders about the opening of five new STEM high schools focusing on science, technology, engineering and math, then again dodged reporters’ questions, ducking down a staircase closed to the press.

The media approach was a stark contrast to that of Emanuel’s predecessor, Mayor Richard M. Daley, who regularly held news conferences and took reporter questions after the ringing of the opening-day school bell.

Explained Emanuel press secretary Tarrah Cooper later by email, “Today was all about our students who, for the first time, now have a full school day and a full school year that measures up to their full potential.’’

Emanuel left town later Tuesday in time to speak during a prime-time slot at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

The CTU’s Sharkey late Monday said weekend talks had merely focused on “clearing the underbrush” of “the easiest stuff” and putting big issues — like teacher pay, a new teacher evaluation system that will rate some teachers in part on student test-score progress and job security — to the side for later discussion.

“I think we need every minute between now and Sept. 10 to settle all issues,’’ Sharkey said.

Also Tuesday, CPS Communications Chief Becky Carroll said that by week’s end, the system will identify the names of 144 school sites that will be used for half-day of activities in the event of a strike. Parents will have to sign up for them online or by calling CPS, where staffers will be on hand over the weekend to take their calls, Carroll said.

“We will send out emails, letters, text [messages], robocalls, use the media — we’ll use every means possible to ensure parents have the number to call or where to go online,” Carroll said. However, she said, parents will not be allowed to enroll by just showing up Monday at designated contingency sites with their kids.

At Shields, Nikita Dixon walked her sixth-and seventh-grade children to the front door and worried about what would happen with children out of school, given the shootings plaguing the city.

“I just pray they come to an agreement without a strike,” she said. “They’re left out here in the street. Guess who they’re left with? The gangbangers.”

The threat of a walkout seemed miles away Tuesday as students, bubbling with excitement, strode through a gauntlet of greeter-students and into the auditorium of Clemente for the system’s traditional opening-day bell-ringing ceremony. WGCI-Radio had kids hopping out of their seats with a simultaneous radio broadcast.

Clemente, at 1147 N. Western, added the equivalent of an additional class period in math and English four days a week with the move from a 7-hour school day to a 7-1/2 hour one four days a week. In elementary schools, thousands of kids enjoyed their first mandatory recess in decades and had their school day stretched from, generally, 5-3/4 hours to 7 hours.

And, systemwide, schools will feature 180 days of classes – the national average – up from 170 last school year.

Clemente junior Yaniralis Rosario, 17, was thrilled about school resuming. “I’m happy because I really want to see my friends and focus on my career...of being a military officer.’’

A strike could interrupt her progress, Yaniralis said.

“The strike — I think it’s pretty dumb. It affects us, our learning — we want to learn and we can’t because of a dumb strike if it goes on.’’

Rosario said she tended to side with teachers, who are seeking more than the 2 percent raise and the freeze of additional pay bumps for seniority and credentials offered by cash-strapped CPS officials who cancelled a scheduled 4 percent teacher raise last school year.

“The school system is wrong. They deserve the pay. They work their butts off teaching us,” Yaniralis said.

However, Clemente parent and local school council member Judy Vasquez said raises should be given “to people who work” and be “based on their evaluation by the principal.”

“Some teachers are comfortable in their position and they do not teach academically 100 percent,’’ Vasquez said.

At De Diego Elementary, 1313 N. Claremont, teacher Juan Madrigal also was excited about the new school year but conceded that the strike threat was already having an impact. De Diego’s plans to start an after-school robotics class were delayed because “we don’t know if we will go on strike,’’ he said.

“A strike is not in our best interest,” Madrigal said. But “If a strike happens, it happens.” In the meantime, he said, “We’re staying positive.’’

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