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Keeping public schools open during strikes not always feasible

“We have an obligatiresponsibility our children” CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard says.  |  John H. White~Sun-Times

“We have an obligation and responsibility to our children,” CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard says. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 3, 2012 6:15AM

A quarter of Chicago Public Schools will be open for half a day, feeding children breakfast and lunch, if teachers walk out on Sept. 10.

When teachers in other American cities have gone on strike in recent years, most districts have closed the schools.

The latest strike among city districts happened in Tacoma, Wash., in September 2011, when teachers were out for eight days and 28,000 students and their parents were on their own, according to Tacoma School District spokesman Dan Voelpel.

Madison, Wis., closed its 50 schools to 24,000 students for four days in February 2011, when teachers statewide protested budget cuts, a spokeswoman said.

In 2006, Detroit closed schools to 129,000 students during a 16-day strike.

The Chicago Public Schools plans to provide food and shelter in a limited capacity for its 400,000 students, spending up to $25 million to keep 145 school sites open from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on weekdays.

The district will staff buildings with non-CTU employees and extra workers it will hire.

“These plans are simply a precaution,” CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said in a statement last week, “but we have an obligation and responsibility to our children and their parents to make sure they are not left behind in the event of a strike.”

In Tacoma, all 55 schools closed during a two-week strike, Voelpel said. Two hundred students joined their teachers on the picket lines, he said.

Meanwhile, the Boys & Girls Club stepped up its programs to try to fill in child-care gaps as best they could.

“The point of a strike is to be disruptive for the district and families . . .” Voelpel said. “If it was all smooth and kids had a place to go, there wouldn’t be any point to going on strike.”

Carrie Prudente-Holden, director of operations at the Boys & Girls Club of South Puget Sound, said she had already dismissed summer staff and cut to the usual four hours a day after school when strike talk popped up.

She changed the schedule back to a full 11 hours, cobbling together staff from other locations and volunteers.

Each morning, parents could bring in children ages 6 to 18, pay a fee and go to work, she said.

“We did that because we figured most parents weren’t going to have the luxury of being able to preplan. They would be coming to us last-minute, simply because someone else had fallen though,” she said.

Prudente-Holden said she got lucky.

“The community stepped up and responded to our call to action. That’s what it took — community engagement,” she said.

She could not imagine how Chicago would manage; Tacoma’s district is less than one-tenth the size of CPS.

In 2000, Buffalo, N.Y., tried to keep schools open with substitute teachers after union officials announced they would walk out a third at a time.

“Nobody would know which third of the schools would be out on any particular day,” longtime Buffalo Teachers Federation president Phil Rumore said.

Then the union changed its mind and walked out of all schools on the first day.

“They weren’t ready to deal with all the schools going out,” Rumore said. “They had to close the schools.”

The second ­— and final ­— strike day, the buildings stayed opened, keeping kids in auditoriums, Rumore said.

“Many of the parents kept their kids at home,” he said.

Los Angeles left some schools open in 1989 to house some of its 600,000 students for nine days, former school board president Roberta Weintraub recalled.

“Many of them were open, some weren’t. It depended on how militant the area around the school was,” she said.

Principals and temps supervised the students.

“They did hire a lot of people to come in and man the classrooms,” Weintraub said. “A lot of movies went on, no real learning.”

The last time Chicago teachers went on strike a generation ago, schools were closed.

The Board of Education broadcast several hours of lessons a day on its radio station. Park districts opened field houses at 10 a.m. instead of 2 p.m. and kept beaches and pools open into September, too.

And Chicago Public Library branches showed educational films, suggested books and helped students study on their own.

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