| CHICAGO, Sept 15
CHICAGO, Sept 15 Striking Chicago teachers fear
that once they approve a new contract with the school district
and end their strike, Mayor Rahm Emanuel will go ahead with
dozens of school closings because of falling enrollment and poor
The closing of schools and what happens to the teachers
working in them has been a major issue in the bitter dispute,
even though the disagreement over evaluating teachers based on
standardized test results of their students has received more
Urban school districts around the country are grappling with
closing schools, including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Kansas
City, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Washington, according to a study
last year on school closings by the Pew Charitable Trust.
"If they fire us, we're done," said Rhonda McLeod, a special
education teacher at Gresham Elementary and one of the union
delegates expected to vote on Sunday whether to end the strike.
"We're terrified. We don't need to be dumped to the wayside.
We're not trash, we're teachers."
Union and school officials said on Friday that they had
reached a tentative agreement that could end the five-day strike
and clear the way for classes to resume on Monday in the
third-largest U.S. school district.
The union has set a meeting on Sunday of some 800
representatives from around the city to vote on whether to end
the strike and allow more than 350,000 Chicago students to go
back to school. Negotiators were putting the finishing touches
on that agreement on Saturday.
Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has fallen nearly 20
percent in the last decade, according to the Pew study, mainly
because of population declines in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
According to the union, 86 public schools in Chicago have
closed in the past decade. Many have been replaced by charter or
"contract" schools run by philanthropists, and charter schools
now account for 12 percent of students, district figures show.
The Chicago Tribune reported this week that school district
officials are considering closing up to 120 schools next year,
which would be 17 percent of all schools in the district. Asked
about this on Wednesday, Emanuel said it was too early to say.
Charter schools are publicly funded but non-union, and the
teachers union has complained that they undermine public
education and force more community schools to close. Their
academic performance record compared with community schools is
mixed, according to national studies.
But a powerful U.S. education movement is pushing charter
schools. Reformers such as Emanuel and U.S. Education Secretary
Arne Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, argue that schools
performing poorly in academics should either be closed
permanently, reopened with new principals and teachers, or
converted to charter schools run by non-union personnel.
The union has fought for so-called "recall rights" giving
teachers who have been laid off because their school closed
priority in being rehired at another school.
Emanuel has said he wants principals to hire any teacher
they want, not according to seniority or recall rights.
"I think it should be left up to the principal, locally,"
Emanuel told reporters on Wednesday.
An example of this conflict is Gresham Elementary school,
where McLeod works on the South Side of Chicago.
Some 90.8 percent of the 325 pre-kindergarten through eighth
grade students who attend Gresham are classified as low income,
according to the school district.
The student population is 98.8 percent African-American, the
district says, and the neighborhood is one that has been hit by
a wave of gang-related murders this summer, drawing national
There have been 366 murders in Chicago through the beginning
of September, up 30 percent from a year ago, mainly due to gang
violence, police figures show. Thirty-one of those deaths have
been in the neighborhood where Gresham Elementary school is
located, up 19 percent from last year. Over the last two years
23 children ages 10 or younger have been killed in the Chicago
crossfire, some of them while walking to or from school.
McLeod said gunfire could sometimes be heard near the
Gresham elementary has been rated "on probation" by the
school district for the last four academic years because its
students have performed poorly on the Illinois Standards
Achievement Test (ISAT), which measures students on reading,
math and science.
While the school's academics have improved some, probation
means that if the school does not improve further it could have
its principal removed, the school closed and students
transferred, or the school closed and reopened with new staff.
The teachers union argues that they are working in
exceptionally challenging conditions of poverty and crime and
that this affects the ability of their students to learn.
McLeod said principals sometimes were pushed by bosses to
hire new teachers who may not work out in rough neighborhoods.
"Over the years, I've seen a lot of teachers come in and go
running out the door," said McLeod, a 15-year veteran of Chicago
Public Schools who has a masters degree and teaches a college
special education course.
Teachers and parents have also expressed worry that school
closings can make life more dangerous for students, forcing them
across gang lines into other neighborhoods and increasing the
possibility of violence.
The beating death in 2009 of 16-year-old high school student
Derrion Albert, captured on a cell phone video and seen around
the world, has been blamed by activists in part on conflicts
arising from school closings.