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What will kids get out of deal between teachers, Chicago Public Schools?

Chicago School Board President David Vitale  | Chandler West~Sun-Times

Chicago School Board President David Vitale | Chandler West~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 17, 2012 6:33AM

In the last few teacher contracts, the teachers got two types of raises, Mayor Rahm Emanuel reminded us in 2011 as his handpicked school board canceled their promised pay bumps. The city’s leaders got labor peace.

“Can anybody explain to me what the children got? I know what everybody else got,” the mayor famously said.

“Our children got the shaft.”

This time, labor was up in arms, picketing and protesting for five school days. What Chicago Public School teachers are going to definitively get could be publicized Sunday when the Chicago Teachers Union votes on a contract that spawned the first strike in 25 years.

And the children?

Everyone said that’s who they were fighting for. What’s in it for them?

Although Emanuel earlier won a change in state law that allowed him to impose a longer school day for students, the contract is expected to wrap up final details on the issue — including extra pay for teachers — that should put it to rest.

That longer day also means all students are getting recess, which many argue is a key way to blow off steam and re-focus kids when they come inside.

Better teachers?

And they could be getting better teachers in the long run, if a plan to weed out low performers works as intended. The school board’s controversial teacher evaluation system was a key hurdle in the weeklong walkout.

Julie Woestehoff said she’s been fighting for recess since she was on a local school council in the late 1980s.

“Now children have an even more rigid curriculum and test prep, and need even more the opportunity to blow off steam and get a little physical exercise. That’s important for their education,” said Woestehoff, now the executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education.

But air conditioning? With about a third of schools operating year-round, and at least one CPS proposal this week suggesting a single calendar that would merge the existing calendars into one, a written timetable to install air conditioning at all CPS buildings kept popping up among picketers.

“On day one, when Rahm said on the news, ‘The minor issues are class size and air conditioning,’ that hurt a lot of parents,” Mount Greenwood elementary mom Erica Harper said. “Those are not his children in the room.”

‘Child abuse’

Woestehoff called the high temps “child abuse.”

“It’s inhumane that the district forces children and adults to be in 95-, 100-degree weather without air conditioning,” she said. “Children cannot learn when they’re baking.”

Wendy Katten, a mom of a CPS fourth-grader and a founder of the parent group Raise Your Hand, is trying to manage her own expectations.

“We’re not going to get the school students deserve,” she said. “I hope that parents aren’t disappointed, because I don’t think there’s going to be much tangible from the list” of improvements her organization championed.

Board president David Vitale may have confirmed her fear when he declined Friday to comment on these peripheral issues. “I’m not going into that,” Vitale said. “We’d love to have air conditioning in every school. We’d love to have more social workers. But the truth of the matter is we only have so many resources.”

Class size angst

And parents worry what will happen to class size, especially since the school board has so far dodged questions about how it plans to pay for the proposed teacher raises.

Teacher evaluations caused the most anguish all week. The district was determined to link them to student test scores to improve accountability. The union worried too many of its teachers could be permanently unemployed as the district closes buildings and changes school missions.

Linking test scores to evaluations will weed out the worst classroom teachers, said Kirabo Jackson, an education professor and labor economist at Northwestern University. That could open spots for more skilled ones.

And children taught by superior teachers learn better.

“No one’s advocating using it alone,” he said of evaluating solely on test scores. Classroom observations and a principal’s assessment need to count even more in identifying the best and worst teachers, and those who need help to improve.

“If one has demonstrated they’re an excellent teacher, I imagine a principal would be happy to hire you back.”

More time: pro or con?

Whether the longer day will benefit or hinder children depends on who’s asked. For Jitka Yost, who sends her first-grader to Skinner North Classical on a long bus ride, it’s tiring. For Jeremy Riggs, who just moved from Nashville, Tenn., to take a job as technology coordinator at Horace Greeley Elementary School in Boystown, it means a whole extra period of computer classes for his students.

“It’s important to understand computer skills, word processing skills and things they’re going to need when they get to high school and college,” said Riggs, whose three children also started at CPS on Sept. 4.

He’s hoping the contract keeps evaluations free from consequences the first year, having come from a state that already ties teacher evaluations to student test scores.

The process the first year was fraught with unknowns, he said.

“There were so many questions along the way, so many things that hadn’t been thought of as we went through it,” he said. “It was just rough. And it was just tough because people in Tennessee didn’t know how it was going to work either.”

Riggs was touched by the community support he saw for Chicago’s teachers.

So was PURE’s Woestehoff.

“Frankly, I think the children are going to benefit from teachers who are newly invigorated and excited about the work that they do.

“It’s not that they have just been able to come together as a profession, but they’ve seen the outpouring of support from parents and students and other community members that I think has really lifted them up, and I think they’ll take that into the classroom when they come back.”

Contributing: Maudlyne Ihejirika

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