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What will Chicago Public Schools calendar be next year?

Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks KamarrGrider during visit Beidler Elementary School 3151 W. Walnut for first day classes. Monday August 13

Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks to Kamarra Grider during a visit to Beidler Elementary School, 3151 W. Walnut, for first day of classes. Monday, August 13, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:47AM

Nine months of negotiations over a new Chicago teachers contract may have sputtered and spun over a lot of issues, but both sides reached swift agreement on one thing:

Moving to one school calendar for all schools by next fall.

Talks that resolved the first Chicago Teachers Union strike in 25 years last week now leave parents wondering which calendar will win out.

Will it be the traditional model that begins the day after Labor Day, used by two-thirds of the system? The so-called “year-round calendar,” that starts in mid-August?

Or will officials choose something in between?

And will parents know in time to book a family suite in the Wisconsin Dells for next summer?

Vacation plans for some families might have to be put on hold until CPS resolves the issue — as well as when kids will make up the seven days lost to this year’s strike.

“The calendar is hugely important to parents,” said Jonathan Goldman, local school council chair at Drummond Montessori. “The current situation creates a lot of uncertainty for parents.”

Goldman noted that Chicago Public School officials have trumpeted an agreement to have a joint CPS-CTU committee work out the details on a “unified” school calendar.

“But there’s no mention of involving parents,” Goldman said. “Parents are far more impacted than any other stakeholder.”

Drummond, in Logan Square, uses the CPS year-round calendar, and Goldman likes it. But Drummond classrooms are air-conditioned.

Fiske Elementary, in Woodlawn, follows the same calendar, but Fiske parent Tracy Johnson would just as soon switch to a post-Labor Day opening. Fiske classrooms are not air conditioned, though the principal’s office is, Johnson said.

Teachers turn off the lights to reduce heat, turn on fans and open the windows — which doesn’t help much on muggy days, Johnson said. The kids still swelter, Johnson said.

“Why can’t our children have air conditioning?” Johnson asked. “These kids have to do their work through the heat. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Meanwhile, Cynthia Flowers is the parent of a CPS high school junior on the traditional calendar, and she sees the advantages of a year-round one.

Juniors could use the additional vacation time during the regular school year to prepare for ACT tests, Flowers said. When they are seniors, they could use it to work on college applications.

Flowers also agreed with Goldman: “Parents should have some voice. It affects family life.”

If everything is up for consideration, that presumably could include a true year-round calendar. The so-called “year-round” model that one-third of the system currently uses is really a misnomer, said Barbara Radner of DePaul University’s Center for School Improvement.

A true year-round calendar alternates all year between nine weeks of school and three weeks off, Radner said.

Chicago’s “year-round” schools begin about three weeks earlier than those schools with traditional post-Labor Day starts, and add in a two-week break in October and an extra week around Christmas. Both calendars currently end on the same date next year — June 17.

Although many assume true year-round schooling reduces summer learning loss, that’s not what the research says, Radner said. There was no link to increased test scores in the research she reviewed.

“The word used was ‘inconclusive,’” Radner said.

Even so, Radner said, many teachers like it because “they like the break.” Some research indicates year-round schooling lessens teacher burnout.

Perhaps that’s why, when CPS officials brought up a unified calendar during teacher contract talks, the union signed on quickly.

“Despite all the things we disagreed and fought about, the board and union did agree to move to a unified calendar this fall,” said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “It wasn’t controversial.”

A unified calendar is “parent friendly” and eliminates the possibility that parents could have different children on different calendars, said CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler.

It also “allows better coordination and use of resources,” she said.

“CPS does not have an institutional preference,” Ziegler said. “It wants a calendar that maximizes educational opportunities for students and does not inconvenience parents.”

Though in the past the district pushed to increase the number of schools on year-round schedules, the air-conditioning issue may be a stumbling block to adding more in the future. Only 39 percent of CPS schools are fully air conditioned, although more have some air-conditioning, CPS officials say.

The lack of systemwide air conditioning raised one of the biggest roars from CTU members when union officials outlined a CPS “bill of terribles” during a May contract rally at the Auditorium Theatre.

During the strike, at another rally in Union Park, CTU President Karen Lewis raised the issue again.

“I want them to turn off the air conditioning at [CPS headquarters at] 125 S. Clark, and work like we work,” Lewis told a crowd of thousands. “I want them to turn off the air conditioning on the fifth floor of City Hall and let them work like we work.”

At the bargaining table, even CPS officials seemed to agree that classes in the summer without air conditioning would be “dangerous,” said CTU attorney Robert Bloch. During talks, the union tried unsuccessfully to get CPS to commit to air-conditioning all schools by a certain date.

“For them it was a money thing,” Bloch said.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll Friday pegged the cost of putting air conditioning in every CPS school at $2 billion. Meanwhile, CPS is trying to find $74 million to pay for the first year of the new teachers contract, with no rainy day reserve fund to tap.

The best the CTU could do at the table, Bloch said, was to win agreement for the formation of a joint committee to “investigate, study and determine a time-table for air-conditioning or other temperature controls for classrooms in use during July or August.”

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