Access Living catches up with two students during the CPS Strike

High School Junior and Empowered Fe Fe Alexis Smith
Gavin and Garrett, two CPS Students and members of the Disability Justice Mentoring Collective, hanging out.
Around the country, all eyes have been on Chicago since the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike. Since September 10th, 350,000 Chicago Public School (CPS) students have been out of school while nearly 30,000 unionized teachers walked the picket line and rallied in support of their demands. Through last week and early this week, union leaders and CPS leaders negotiated furiously, trying to find common ground on a variety of issues. Though progress appears to have been made on the issues, as the school week began on September 17, teachers were expected to strike at least another two days.

Many of the issues over which the two sides negotiated directly impact students with disabilities in the public schools. This includes teacher evaluations, one of the more contentious issues of the negotiations. Recently, the Chicago Public Schools have put more emphasis on student performance when evaluating a teacher. This emphasis came to the surface in January of 2010 when Illinois adopted the Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA) of 2010.

Under PERA, there is considerable emphasis on student performance in terms of teacher and principal evaluation. Access Living agrees that educators should be held accountable for the education and progress of students with disabilities in Illinois public schools. Yet, Access Living is concerned that too much emphasis is placed on test scores. In a report titled “Holding Educators Accountable For the Academic Growth of Students with Disabilities” Access Living urged Illinois to modify elements of PERA in order to take some emphasis away from the test scores of students with disabilities in relation to the general student population, and put more emphasis on student growth related to his or her progress on Individualized Education Plans and related to his or her individual improvement on test scores.

In addition to teacher evaluation, current negotiations between the union and CPS are addressing pay, supports, and working conditions.

During the strike, while the academic year was put on hold, parents, family members and guardians made alternate plans for their children who typically would be in school. As an option for families, Chicago opened up more than 140 schools as “Children First” sites. While the schools don’t offer academics, they do offer a structured and safe environment for students. For many parents, who scrambled to find alternative options so they could attend to work and other responsibilities, they may also have offered piece of mind.

Clearly, the strike, and the outcome of the strike, will impact nearly everyone in Chicago in one way or another. But the hundreds of thousands of public school students, including the thousands of students with disabilities, are some of, if not the most, affected. A number of Access Living Empowered Fe Fes, a support and organizing group for young women with disabilities, are public school students. While the media ran stories that cover the perspective of union members, teachers, parents, City Officials, and school administrators, Access Living tried to catch up with some of the students.

Alexis Smith is a junior at Westinghouse College Prep. She hopes to study journalism at a four year university when she graduates from high school. During the strike, Alexis stayed home with her grandmother. Though there we no classes, Alexis stayed busy. “I still have work to keep me occupied,” she said. She took the time off from classes to study and catch up on assignments. Speaking about the strike, Alexis said, “I think there are pros and cons. If the strike goes well, teachers will be able to teach in smaller classrooms. That will be helpful because teachers will be able to devote more attention to individuals. In terms of the cons, she said, “Teachers will be far behind. The teachers will rush the material. It will make it harder [for students] to learn everything, remember everything.”

Asked about the schools that stayed open to accommodate the students, Alexis thought she was better off studying at her grandmother’s house, “My time is better spent at home studying,” she said.

Another Empowered Fe Fe who attends public school is Shannon Young, a senior at Vaughn. Shannon lives with her mother, who works during the day. Rather than go to a “Children First” site, she spent the first few days of the strike at a friend’s house. After she graduates, she wants to study math and reading at the University of Illinois. But Shannon is concerned that the strike her timeline for graduation. “I will be very upset if the strike [continues],” she said. “I want to stay in school so I can graduate.”

Garrett and Gavin Jones are brothers who participate in Access Living’s Disability Justice Mentoring Project. They’ve stayed home during the strike. According to their mother, who posted on Access Living’s Facebook Page, “We are hanging around home, catching up on homework, and going to therapies at RIC (Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago).

Though the issues involved around the strike in Chicago are complex, most everyone hopes the strike will end soon so that educators can get back to the business of teaching, and students can get back to the business of learning.

On Monday, September 17, the Chicago Public Schools filed a legal request in Court to issue a preliminary injunction to end the strike. According to the Sun-Times, the legal document includes specific mention of Special Education. Referring to public school students, the document says: “All of these students now face the all too real prospect of prolonged hunger, increased risk of violence and disruption of critical special education services, and all because of decisions not of their making, in which they did not have a voice or a vote,” the complaint alleges.”

While special education students probably appreciate the recognition, all students, whether disabled or not, and whether in special education or general education programming, will miss at least seven days of school. Each student, not just special education students, face “disruption” of “critical” services.
And when the strike ends and resolutions are reaches, it is the hope of Access Living, and probably people throughout Chicago, that students, both disabled and non disabled, are the ones who benefit most from the agreements.

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