Friday, September 14, 2012
Why the Chicago teachers strike matters (RELEVANT)
If you popped over from RELEVANT, welcome!
As I type this, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union apparently are close to an agreement that could end the week-long strike in my city. You probably are tired of hearing about it, but it's not just about Chicago. It matters.
To Kestelle Wiersma, it is “a social justice issue.” And she's not the first to sound that note: Secretary Duncan, President Obama, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and, most recently at the Republican National Convention late last month in Tampa, Fla., former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice all have called education "the civil rights issue of our time."
Wiersma and I were sitting in Cafe Jumping Bean Tuesday night in her Pilsen neighborhood, the heart of Chicago’s Mexican-American community, drinking lattes and Coke from glass bottles and talking about the strike consuming our lives and livelihoods. She’s been a teacher in CPS since 2006; in Louisiana, before that. I write about several suburban school districts for one of the Sun-Times’ publications, although, as Wiersma said, “Chicago makes its own rules.”
She teaches a special education classroom for students in kindergarten through grade three at Avalon Park Elementary School on the South Side of Chicago, which makes her part of the 70 percent of CPS teachers who reportedly do not teach a tested subject. Her classroom includes a student who suffers from seizures so severe, they’ve erased his short-term memory, she said. In the first few weeks of school, he’s made progressed in remembering the letters in his name, but that’s not progress a CPS-written performance tasks would show. By the end of the year, he still is not going to be able to read a story about a little owl and write a sentence describing its feelings, she said.
Up to 20 percent of Wiersma’s evaluation would be based on schoolwide test results, according to the original contract offer made by the district. Another at least 10 percent would be based on student growth on performance tasks. And a “needs improvement” rating would give her 90 days to improve performance or lose her job.
That “changes how you look at people,” she said, forcing teachers to focus on the students they know can make progress on tests from the beginning to the end of the school year.
But that’s not why Wiersma, who is white and grew up in Iowa, chose to teach students with special needs in a school that is “not my ethnicity, not my background, not my culture,” she said. Avalon Park students are 99.5 percent black and 97.8 percent low income, according to 2011 Illinois Interactive Report Card data. The percentage of students who transferred in and out of the school between the start and end of last school year is 40.3, more than three times the state average, according to that data. And the percentage of students considered “chronic truants,” those who are absent at least 10 percent of the school year, is 17.3, more than five times the state average. All are factors outside of school -- and a teacher’s control -- that impact student performance.
“It’s why I chose where I’m at,” she said. “I feel like it’s my calling from God. I really have to opportunity to love on others the way God loves us – to choose to love on others who may not be the easiest to love.”
For the rest of the story read Why the Chicago teachers strike matters (RELEVANT). For links to columns and analysis I find insightful about the strike and updates as they happen, follow me on Twitter at @mcemilywrites.
Photo credit: RELEVANT.