In September 2012, what happened was a teachers’ strike, spurred partly by the fact that teachers were being asked to work more without a proportionate pay increase. Chicago’s schools were closed for seven days.
Under the deal that allowed operations to resume, elementary teachers would be at work for more hours, but with a substantial midday break for lunch and planning. Students, too, would have longer for lunch. Recess—which can improve students’ concentration, socialization and physical activity levels—was back, with principals to figure out staffing. And the system would hire new teachers, many in art, music and physical education, as principals decided within the contract’s terms how their schools could best use their additional time and resources.
Indeed, budget documents show that last academic year, Chicago Public Schools allocated money for 762 more teachers than in the 2011-2012 school year. School system officials said 511 of the new positions—many in art, music and physical education—were created specifically to help elementary schools with the longer day, but not all of them were filled. High schools did not receive additional staff automatically since they were not adding as much time.
This year, 1,413 teaching positions—6.5 percent of all those in the city—were cut. So were 1,927 school support positions, nearly 15 percent of all the clerks, aides and others who help make teachers and administrators’ jobs manageable.
Many schools have seen class sizes swell, alongside a decline in counselors, librarians, and reading and math intervention teachers.
Theodore Roosevelt High, on the city’s northwest side, lost $1.6 million—about 10 percent of its budget. Seventy-five percent of the school’s nearly 1,400 students are Latino, and 97 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch.
The cuts meant losing the attendance clerk, who helped track down truant students, and the college and career coach, leaving teachers to help with financial aid forms and college essays. Teachers say the in-school suspension program no longer has a designated staff person to monitor students, many of whom just get up and leave. Roosevelt has cut back on its night school program and eliminated many elective courses, including the student newspaper.
To make use of its additional time, the school added five minutes to every class period. Social studies teacher Tim Meegan said he sees students cutting the last period to get to after-school jobs or pick up younger siblings.
“My pacing has been the same. I haven’t been able to get further ahead in the curriculum,” said Meegan, who holds the prestigious National Board Certification and has been at the school for a decade. “There’s no way anyone can tell me kids are learning more because they’re in school longer.”
As Roosevelt administrators try to boost test scores, many students now attend two periods a day of English and another two of math in lieu of motivating electives. “The promise was opportunity, and it’s double-period English and double-period math,” said Keith Plum, an English teacher and the school’s union delegate. “How are they going to be interested in school? I mean, really, how?”