Anxious students feeling pinch amid Chicago teachers' strike

Anxious students feeling pinch amid Chicago teachers' strike
Striking Chicago Teachers Union members and their supporters march west on Roosevelt Road from Clark Street to Halsted Street in Chicago on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. Chicago's mayor refused to grant striking teachers demands to add school days making up for two weeks of classes canceled by the walkout. The union's elected delegates voted Wednesday night to accept a tentative agreement with the district but said they won't end a strike without a commitment to make up classroom time from Mayor Lori Lightfoot. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune via AP)

CHICAGO (AP) — Deadlines that could affect both Chicago students and striking teachers are looming over efforts this week to resolve a walkout that has canceled classes for 11 days in the nation’s third-largest school district.

Parents across the city are worried about time away from school slowing their kids’ progress. The effects on high school students, though, has been more immediate.

Planned testing dates for the SAT and ACT were canceled. Seniors preparing for colleges’ Nov. 1 early application deadlines sought feedback elsewhere for their essays.

Athletes were barred from competing in playoffs due to the state athletic association’s rules, but several high school football teams got renewed hope of playing this weekend if a strike is resolved.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers’ Union voted to approve a tentative contract agreement with city officials Wednesday but refused to end the strike unless the city’s mayor adds school days to cover that lost time.

“This has been a long journey,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday. “Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of harm that has been done to our young people.”

Meanwhile for more than 25,000 members of the teachers’ union, the start of November could mean losing their health insurance through the school district — increasing the financial burden for educators already going without pay during the strike. Union leaders said this week that their members will have to weigh the “risks and rewards” of continuing a strike.

Jesse Sharkey, the union’s president, said Tuesday night that he understood the walkout had caused “pain in the city.”

“No one wanted a strike,” he said. “Least of all teachers.”

Without access to their teachers and counselors, some high school seniors turned to alumni of Chicago’s school district, who lined up volunteers to read students’ essays. Others were already connected to nonprofit programs like Bottom Line, where coaches work with Chicago students from low-income homes and who would be the first in their family to attend college.

Their offices have been teeming with students aiming to apply to colleges early but worried about getting letters of recommendation and other documents in time, said executive director Chris Broughton.

“I definitely worry about the student who maybe was highly motivated in summer, early fall but was relying on an in-school program or a teacher to drive them,” Broughton said. “And without that person, they’re losing that motivation to complete the process.”

Sary Rios, a senior at George Westinghouse College Prep on the West Side, said she has used the time out of classes to focus on college applications, with help from a coach at Bottom Line.

Rios, 18, said she initially worried about getting letters of recommendation and completed fee waivers in time for early application deadlines but found colleges “very supportive and understanding” about the strike’s effects on her and her classmates.

“I understand the teachers are fighting for the future of other kids in Chicago Public Schools,” Rios said. “I don’t mind waiting for the letters.”

November deadlines for early admission aren’t arbitrary. Applying early can give students a better chance at being accepted to competitive schools and more access to financial help, said Christine Poorman, executive director of College Possible Chicago.

The nonprofit’s college coaches typically work in Chicago schools but have met with students at libraries during the strike to work on essays for college applications and finalize applications for financial aid, she said.

“It’s a lot of stress and a lot of concern for students,” she said.

Poorman said assistant principals at high schools around the city have stepped in to help students get copies of their transcripts and other records that colleges require.

Principals at other schools have emailed anxious students and parents with directions on how to request copies of transcripts sent to colleges on time and encourage them to contact colleges directly with concerns about letters of recommendation or other materials.

Some schools have independently adjusted their deadlines for Chicago students or advised students to submit what they can and get other documents in when classes resume. At the University of Chicago, administrators decided to extend the deadline to Nov. 10 for students affected by the strike.

Peter Wilson, the university’s director of admissions, said colleges keep tabs on major events that could affect students’ applications including natural disasters, and are often open to helping.

“Take a deep breath,” Wilson said he would advise students. “It’s going to be OK, and it’s all going to work out in the end.”

The strike also canceled PSAT exams set for Tuesday for the district’s high school juniors, including Rena Robinson’s 16-year-old twins. The district has said juniors can take the SAT in April and use those scores for National Merit Scholarship consideration.

Robinson said she’s concerned that her daughter, Faith, and son, Foster, will be at a disadvantage without the practice opportunity of taking the PSAT. The twins attend a high school on the city’s West Side.

“That’s going to affect them in the long run,” Robinson said. “They need all the learning they can because they have to compete with strong competitors out there. When is enough going to be enough?”

In athletics, the strike has already prevented city schools’ golf, cross county and volleyball teams from participating in statewide playoffs. High school football teams’ hopes to compete in the first playoff round Saturday were preserved Wednesday when the district permitted them to hold practices.

Rules set by the Illinois High School Association require teams to hold at least three days of practices to be eligible for the playoff round.