A large group of public school teachers marches past John Marshall Metropolitan High School on Wednesday, September 12, 2012 in West Chicago. Teachers walked off the job Monday for the first time in twenty-five years over issues that include pay raises, classroom conditions, job security and teacher evaluations. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)
Rolisa is a married mom with four kids. Two of them are successful graduates of Chicago’s public schools—her eldest graduated from college in 2011, and the second is a college junior. Her younger kids are in the fourth and sixth grades at a small public school on the South Side. The class sizes are at the city average, and the test scores are above the state average. Her kids are pretty happy there. Or at least they were, until the standoff between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel transformed them into students of Rolisa’s makeshift kitchen table school.
As the strike loomed, Rolisa secured a curriculum from her kids’ teachers, coordinated with other working parents and enlisted her eldest daughter. But even with this preparation, the strike was a harrowing time for her. Rolisa suffers from COPD, a serious breathing condition. As a result, she works from home, which made her impromptu home school possible but not easy. In addition to the exhausting days and the financial burden of hosting and feeding neighborhood kids every day, the uncertainty of when and how the strike would end kept everyone on edge. Rolisa worried about the dangers teens in her community might encounter during days of unstructured idleness. Like the majority of Chicago parents, she sided with the teachers, but she was frustrated and worried about her children’s short- and long-term prospects.
“As a sixth grader, my son is facing very high-stakes testing this year,” Rolisa told me. “We were hoping he could gain admission to one of the high school prep programs. That would give him access to the best public high schools. We needed every minute of class time before those tests. Every day they are out of school, he gets further from that prep program, further from the best high schools, further from college.”
Listening to Rolisa describe her son’s future in such precarious terms made me realize just how lucky I was to be born when I was—in the early 1970s. It was a moment when the civil rights and women’s movements opened new job opportunities for my parents. I started kindergarten when it was still the norm for all parents in the neighborhood—even those with more disposable income—to send their kids to the local public school. There was a private school in town, but I’m not sure who went there.
It was the South, but this was just before white flight became a perfected strategy of resegregation, so I learned in racially and economically integrated classrooms. My teachers were paid a living wage, so they worked just one job, not two. They had time to offer extra help after school. In high school I had art, orchestra and sports—none of it cost extra. These were neighborhood schools, so I could walk or take a bus, and my single mom didn’t have to take time from work to get me to and from school and events. The schools weren’t great, but they were safe, and there were just enough extraordinary teachers to keep me challenged. Local businesses sponsored the football team, but no corporation sought profits from competing with our public schools.