In Chicago, Teachers Strike Confronts Families With Crisis

Student Edgar Guerra, 10, watches Chicago Public School teachers picket outside Maranatha Church in Chicago where Mayor Rahm
Student Edgar Guerra, 10, watches Chicago Public School teachers picket outside Maranatha Church in Chicago where Mayor Rahm Emanuel was visiting students that were taking part at the Safe Haven program Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. The church was providing students with structured activities and a safe environment during the teachers strike. Thousands of teachers walked off the job Monday in the nation's third-largest school district for the first time in 25 years after union leaders announced they were far from resolving a contract dispute with school district officials. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

CHICAGO –- On a normal Thursday morning in September, Marcus Turner would be sitting in a classroom at Hyde Park High School, looking forward to the free lunch provided in the cafeteria.

But on this Thursday morning, with more than 26,000 teachers on strike in the nation’s third-largest school system, he is instead wandering through weed-choked alleys in a gritty South Side neighborhood, looking for scrap metal he can sell to a junkyard so he can buy himself something to eat.

Turner spent the previous night at his aunt’s house, where he lined up three folding chairs as a makeshift bed and struggled to sleep amid the sounds of his cousins and hangers-on arguing and scuffling and doing drugs, he says –- cocaine, heroin. He does not know where he will sleep tonight. He ate his last meal more than 24 hours ago, he says, and the timing of his next one is subject to his success in finding objects of value lying in the streets that thread through the grim landscape of dilapidated homes and abandoned storefronts. Even some of the check cashing places are boarded up.

“I wish I was in school right now, learning something of value,” he says. “I’m just staying out of trouble, walking through the streets. I just move on from day to day.”

Turner is among the roughly 400,000 Chicago public school students contending with a strike that has stretched on for four days –- albeit with signs of agreement emerging late Thursday -- forcing families to make alternate arrangements for young people during traditional school hours.

For those households in which parents stay home, the strike has been little more than an unexpected alteration to the seasons, as if summer has made a return after one week of classes. For young people whose parents juggle multiple jobs and who lack child care, the strike is a crisis that puts their paychecks at risk while making each passing day an exercise in creativity under duress.

And for people without regular parenting -– people like Turner, who says his mother is in prison on drug charges, while his father is somewhere lost in a haze of addiction –- the strike is a form of exile from the only place of stability they know: those hours when they are at school, amid institutional order along with food, walls and a roof.

“I’ve had to see the world on my own,” says Turner, 19, who has been essentially homeless for the last three years, bouncing from place to place. “I get through by not even thinking about it. ‘Cause it hurts me when I’m thinking about it.”

A black baseball cap pulled backwards sits atop his light brown dreadlocks. He wears a fraying black hoodie over stained grey jeans. Short and wiry, he navigates the cracked pavement with his head low but his eyes open, acutely attuned for trouble. With every high school student in the Inglewood neighborhood now out of school at once, trouble has been tripping his radar with frequency -- at the corner gas station where kids hang out passing the time; on benches and at bus stops; in front of stores and on stoops and in the alleys. Pretty much everywhere.

“I’m kind of leery,” he says. “I don’t trust walking through the neighborhood. There’s lots of drug dealers, killers out here. Basically, when kids are not in school, that makes everybody around everybody.”

Cognizant of the pitfalls of closing the schools, district authorities established child care sites at 147 schools throughout the city, enabling parents to drop off kids. All told, the sites have room for about 150,000 kids, according to the district.

“We had a responsibility and a concern about our students,” said Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman, Robyn Ziegler. “Many of them don't have other places to go in the event of the strike. We wanted to make sure that students who didn't have alternatives for child care had a safety net.”

In key respects, Chicago’s public schools regularly function as a basic safety net, given that 86 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, meaning they are living close to or below the official poverty line.

Fewer than 30,000 students showed up at the district’s sites on Wednesday, perhaps because the hours were so limited that many parents still could not depend upon the facilities: Most closed at 12:30 p.m. After complaints from parents, the district on Thursday extended its hours, keeping sites open until 2:30 p.m.

Thousands of others students have landed at a loose network of alternative child care facilities provided by advocacy groups, non-profits and churches.

The variety of experiences available from neighborhood to neighborhood attest to the economic divide that characterizes this city and perhaps every major American metropolitan area in an age of extraordinary inequality.

On the North Side of Chicago, in the predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood of Lincoln Square, a pleasing grid of sturdy brick homes on leafy streets, parents in need found help at the Lutheran Memorial Church. There, Wendy Katten -- who has a Master’s in fine arts in creative writing, and who normally oversees a parent advocacy group that raises money for school music programs -- was on Thursday morning helping young people find their way to the strike camp she had put together on the third floor.

One room held a table covered in yarn, crayons and construction paper, where children could fashion art projects. Next door, eighth graders played Scrabble. In an expansive gymnasium bathed in sunlight, a volunteer yoga instructor led three children in basic poses.

And in a cozy room around the corner, Cheryl First-Bornstein snuggled on a couch with her two children -- Mia, 8, and Alex, 5 -– as she read them a picture book, “The Night Before Kindergarten.”

First-Bornstein is a stay-at-home mom. For her young family, the strike is not unlike an extended vacation, even as it has disrupted the beginning of the school year.

“We as a family are in a position to absorb this,” she said, “because I’m not working.”

Indeed, she was thinking of taking the children to visit her father in Michigan.

“We can go to the beach!” Alex said excitedly.

But on the South Side, where multi-generational poverty is a fact of life and those who are employed often need more than one job to pay the bills, the strike was registering as a calamity.

“I had to take today off,” said Barry Smiley, 42, a construction worker with a measuring tape clipped to his belt. He had foregone the $100 he would have made building a deck to look after his 9-year-old son. His wife works as a nurse at a nearby hospital, he said, and lacks flexibility to skip a shift.

“This don’t make no sense,” he said, even as he expressed sympathy for the teachers. “School just started and now y’all on strike? You should have taken care of that before school.”

At Nicholson Technology Academy –- a public school in the neighborhood -– letters on a digital sign broadcast the usual offerings: “Success Starts at 8:50 A.M. Daily.” But the doors were shut and the courtyard was empty, save for a maintenance worker sweeping the steps.

Across the street, at the New Canaan Land Missionary Baptist Church, a handsome structure of dark brick, 28 elementary school kids, all of them African-American, occupied the basement at a Safe Haven program -– a gathering place for students in need of a way to spend this weekday.

They had no schoolbooks, though the church volunteers were in the process of rounding some up. So the kids played games and chatted and passed the morning. Then they washed their hands and sat around tables, waiting for a volunteer staff to serve up lunch –- hot dogs and string cheese, plus an apple.

“This was unexpected,” said Geraldine Slay, a kindly volunteer. “It’s an emergency, and here we are. We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. For a lot of the kids here, this is the food they get. This is some of the best eating. It’s free.”

Joy Resmovits contributed to this report from New York.