Chicago – Patricia Rodríguez sat in a Burger King Monday afternoon having lunch with her daughters, who were not in school because of a teacher strike at Chicago’s public schools.
After the Chicago Teachers Union and Board of Education failed to reach an agreement in contract negotiations Sunday, about 26,000 teachers took signs and picketed in front of schools Monday morning.
Rodriguez's daughter Jasmine, who is eight years old, is a third grader at Edwards Elementary. Her big sister, Yaritza, is 13 and in seventh grade. Both girls said they would much rather be in school than be accompanying their mom to her job at a nearby laundromat.
What could be so important that they thought the best decision was to strike?
Yaritza and Jasmine Rodríguez are two of the roughly 348,000 CPS students displaced by the strike in the country’s third-largest school district. Nearly 180,000 Latinos attend Chicago public schools, accounting for 44 percent of the entire student population.
In their mostly Latino neighborhood of Pilsen on Chicago’s Southwest side, many families - 27 percent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census – live below the poverty line and had to decide Monday whether a parent could afford to stay home from work to be with their children, or arrange for alternative child care.
Eighty-seven percent, or nearly nine out of every 10, Chicago public school students come from low-income families.
"I'm lucky that I can take them to work with me because they can sit in the chairs, but I know that families had to leave kids home alone today or stay home and miss work to be with them and that's not fair," said Patricia Rodríguez. "The teachers want more and more money and while they fight for that, it's us, the parents, that are spending money today that we don't have either. It's not a big thing today but what about tomorrow and next week if they don't go back?"
CPS designated 144 schools as contingency locations where parents could drop off their children, but because of the 12:30 p.m. pickup time, some parents who had to work a full day found them of little help. And at some locations, only a handful of students attended.
According to the most recent Census data from 2010, about 25,000 Latinos call the Lower West Side neighborhood, the area around Pilsen, home. Latinos make up over 82% of the neighborhood's population.
About 27% of the families in the area live below the poverty line, compared to about 15% nationwide.
About 22% of the population has less than a high-school education, compared to about 15% nationwide.
Latinos make up 20% of all Chicago public school staff, and about 16% of teachers--1 in 6--are Latino.
Juan Rangel, the chief executive officer of the United Neighborhood Organization’s (UNO) Veterans Memorial Campus, which houses two charter elementary schools and a high school, hopes the strike will help bring attention to charter schools.
While they are CPS schools, the teachers who work in the city’s charter schools are not unionized and did not strike Monday. UNO is one of the largest charter school networks in Illinois, operating 13 schools in Chicago, all located in primarily Latino neighborhoods.
Rangel sees the charter schools as an alternative for parents who are tired of sending their kids to failing neighborhood schools simply because that is all that’s available to them.
“The strike is actually raising awareness about charter schools because parents across the city are seeing that 52,000 kids are going to school today and they’re going to start asking why their kids aren’t among them,” said Rangel.
Monday afternoon Patricia Rodríguez was asking just that.
"To tell you the truth, I don't really know what the things are that the teachers are asking for right now," said Rodríguez. “But what could be so important that they thought the best decision was to strike?”