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Chicago Public Schools students back in class by Friday?

Updated: October 15, 2012 9:21AM

Two sides in the battle to end a Chicago teachers strike emerged from Wednesday night talks hopeful that students might be back in school Friday.

CTU President Karen Lewis said her message to parents was “for sure, plan for something for your children for [Thursday]. Let’s hope for Friday.’’

School Board President David Vitale agreed. He called the talks “very productive” and said “we’ll hope for Friday.”

After a long day of talks that ended around 11:30 p.m., Lewis said the system’s offer on teacher evaluations, a key stumbling block, had improved to the point that “I’m smiling. I’m very happy.’’

Although she was not ready to check it off her list, “it’s a lot better,’’ Lewis said.

Earlier, Chicago Public School officials Wednesday released what one expert called a “pretty generous concession” to the union on teacher evaluations.

The district’s proposal softens an evaluation system that the union said could have put nearly 30 percent of CPS teachers on the path to dismissal if they didn’t improve their performance within a year.

The proposal made public Wednesday would allow those teachers to stay at their jobs indefinitely, as long as their scores didn’t dramatically decline after the first poor score.

“I think it’s a pretty generous concession,” said Tim Daly, president of the Brooklyn-based New Teacher Project.

Negotiators for the Chicago Teachers Union and for the school board chose a neutral place to bargain, abandoning their own offices for the Hilton Chicago. Some 350,000 public school students have been out of school since Monday, and their 29,000 unionized teachers have been walking picket lines and rallying, red-shirted, around the city.

The change to the teacher evaluation system was included in a 19-page proposal released in an email from CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll Wednesday night.

“I would call it a significant step forward on one of the two thorniest issues,” she said of the change to the evaluation proposal.

The proposal also sweetens the name of the key rating category at issue: from “needs improvement” to “developing.” That would be the second from the bottom of four rating categories.

Daly noted the offer is a step backward from a growing national trend to get rid of teachers in the second-to-last category.

“You typically can’t stay there forever,” he said. “You typically stay there for one year and then you can’t repeat that rating. You’re dismissed or lose tenure.”

He says it’s the type of offer districts may have to make if they want to put kids back in school.

“It’s the kind of proposal that if you’re on the union side, you should be happy to come away with.”

How teachers should be evaluated has become a contentious issue across the country, but Chicago is the first big city to see its teachers strike over it, experts said Wednesday.

“This is a first for a district,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “I don’t even know a small district to strike over teacher evaluation.”

Plus, a growing number of states and districts are in the process of implementing new teacher evaluation systems as part of an attempt to win federal Race To the Top funds or to win waivers from some of the more onerous provisions of the No Child Left Behind law.

As a result, “Chicago is all we’re talking about,” Walsh said. “The nation is watching Chicago because most districts in the country are trying to implement [a teacher evaluation system], so naturally it’s going to raise concerns when teachers go out on strike over it.’’

Late Wednesday afternoon, the Rev. Jesse Jackson emerged from the hotel, volunteering as a possible mediator.

Citing his experience freeing hostages from foreign prisons and hastening the end of the 1980 Chicago firefighters strike, Jackson told reporters he met with both sides independently Wednesday to offer his services. He shuttled across the hallway that separated the parties, he said, listening to their concerns.

The union welcomed him back, he said. The school board has yet to get back to him.

“As I said to both sides, if it means meeting all night long, let’s meet all night long,” Jackson said.

“There’s a standoff between both parties who are quite dug in. The sense of urgency [in the negotiation room] doesn’t match the sense of urgency in the streets.”

Wednesday morning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel urged striking teachers to return to the classroom during negotiations.

“My staff, as well as the Chicago Public School leadership team, is committed to working through these issues, never leaving the table, to get this job done. And those issues can be negotiated simultaneously while our kids are in the classroom learning. Our kids belong in the classroom learning and the negotiators belong in the negotiating room. . . . But none of the issues are such that you can’t do both simultaneously.”

But CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey, even before entering Wednesday’s negotiations, characterized the board’s position on critical areas as “hardening.” He said the written proposal from school officials on Tuesday included some new items, but “it was just not any kind of breakthrough.” That proposal was later revealed to include the relaxed evaluation policy.

“The board has to compromise or this could be a long strike,” Sharkey said.

At Wells High School on Wednesday morning, about 50 students and parents rallying in support of teachers complained about the standardized tests and their role in rating teachers.

Protesters carried signs reading “Don’t test me Bro!” and “Testing does not equal learning,” and chanted “1,2,3,4, more than just a test score.” They argued that their teachers should not be evaluated by student test scores.

Roosevelt High School junior Victor Alquicira, 16 — a leader of the demonstration — said, “It’s not fair to judge teachers on student test scores when there so many factors beyond their control.”

Alquicira said an increased focus on testing meant he had “lost count” of the number of tests he’d taken in the last year, adding, “testing isn’t learning — that’s time we could have been engaging with our teachers and actually learning something.”

Contributing: Maudlyne Ihejirika, Art Golab and Kim Janssen

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