Monday, September 17, 2012

Contingency centers: A view from the inside


In many ways, our strike in Chicago is about differing view of public education. The Mayor has always pushed two tiered education between open enrollment neighborhood schools, and selective charter and test-to-get-in schools.

One product of the strike has been that the board has had an opportunity to demonstrate their vision of education as they set up “contingency centers” for students while schools were out of session.
Media coverage of the inside of the contingency centers has been quite sparse. I spoke yesterday with one of the people forced by central office to cross the picket line to staff a contingency center who outlined the conditions inside:
There are 15-25 students daily at the school. Some of the students present are children of board employees working at the site. The others are a mixture of elementary and high school students, some from the school and some from surrounding schools. There are dozens of board employees, so many sit in the cafeteria. There really isn’t substantive work to be done. People want to do work, but this is a waste of time and resources. There are way more people than needed. When we found out about the contingency centers, some of us were at least excited to be working with kids, but many were dreading it because they aren’t used to working with students.
We were told to address any student questions about the strike by saying, “The teachers have a right to strike and both sides are working for a solution” and to leave it at that. We saw it as a teachable moment, but we were told that we couldn’t say anything else.
So I would hope for several things moving forward: A more strategic, thoughtful deployment of staff. Also, I want a resolution where teachers get what they need. Most importantly, I hope that it raises questions both within CPS and nationally about the privatization of education and the inequities of the conditions that students are learning under. These questions have always been important to me. I hope through the strike we can address them.

These disparities are highlighted further when look at the contingency centers from the outside as our students’ learning conditions had transitioned from a mayoral afterthought to a mayoral political bargaining chip.

Trying to break the strike, Emanuel and his education team stocked these locations with many of the very resources we were demanding on the picket line.

In our schools, students collapse of heat stroke as they struggle to focus in 96 degree classrooms. Jean Claude-Brizard announced that all contingency centers would have AC.
In our schools, students deal with a lack of supplies and broken clocks in every room and when we complain, nothing happens.  Brizard addressed this in his contingency plans (albeit by asking replacement supervisors to bring their own).

In our schools, students are not guaranteed any class size limits, and if class sizes begin to approach reasonable numbers, the board will quickly cut teachers even as late as 4 weeks into the year, plunging students’ schedules into chaos. At the contingency centers, Brizard promised at worst a 25 to 1 ratio, and many have more adults assigned than students.

In many of our schools, cafeterias sometimes run out of food and students are not allowed to bring in outside food. At the contingency centers, Brizard made a point to promise enough food for all students who attended.

Finally, to get to our schools, many students have to pay their own transportation. Low income students often qualify for reduced fares, but even that process can be complex. Often students will miss a day or two a week as their bus fare has run out or someone in the family has used it for something else. The Mayor granted students free CTA rides all week during the strike.

If we received the supports that the contingency centers receive every day, we never would have had to strike.  Our city leadership is clear—students’ welfare is important when people are watching, but not when they are quietly trying to get their education.

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