CHICAGO -- Elfega Cazares isn't taking sides in the standoff between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools over contract talks. Like many of the immigrant parents in the city's Pilsen neighborhood, she knows her children stand to lose the most if teachers walk off the job next Monday.

"It is very important that we stay in school so we can be prepared to be someone in life," Cazares said, her 10-year-old son Francisco Vasquez translating for her from Spanish.

But students across the city, most of whom return to school Tuesday, could find themselves out of the classroom again Sept. 10.

At a time when teachers' unions are under pressure nationwide, union President Karen Lewis said more than 26,000 teachers and support staff in the nation's third-largest school district are prepared to strike for the first time in 25 years. It would be the first big-city strike in the U.S. since Detroit teachers walked off the job for 16 days in 2006. The last Chicago teachers strike was in 1987 and lasted 19 days.

School officials and parents shifted into high gear after the union issued a 10-day strike notice last week, trying to decide what to do with 400,000 students, including those in neighborhoods beset by gangs and struggling with a spike in shootings and homicides. District officials said they would chaperone students during the morning in 145 schools, and invited bids from community organizations to provide "positive activities" the rest of the day.

The pending walkout presents other problems, too. College applications would be delayed. Varsity sports, from football to diving, would be suspended for 11,000 athletes. More than 20,000 juniors could miss practice tests for ACT exams.

Near Manuel Perez Jr. Elementary School in Pilsen, an enclave of Mexican immigrants where the public school plays a central role for almost everyone, the concerns were of a long-term nature.

Working-class parents like Cazares say they would have to find a family member or someone to watch their children while they work, but their bigger fear is children will lose ground on attaining the better life the parents uprooted and crossed borders to pursue. In Pilsen, a good education means children won't have to follow their parents into low-paying jobs.

"They tell us how they didn't get an education, that we must get one for our future," said 19-year-old Connie Diego, whose younger brother is in fifth grade. "We couldn't ever miss even a day because our parents tell us about all the benefits we have there and how where they came from they didn't have anything."

Local activist Fernando Rayas points to children like Vasquez, who must help their immigrant parents communicate. Students learn English at school, he said, not at home. Depriving them of the opportunity, he said, means "they will fall behind."

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who lengthened the school day this year and says he wants to better hold teachers accountable for student performance, has a lot riding on the negotiations. So do teachers, who are upset Emanuel canceled a previously negotiated 4 percent raise and fear the district wants merit-only raises tied solely to student achievement. The two sides appeared to have settled a primary issue when they agreed laid-off teachers would be rehired to cover the longer school day instead of paying existing teachers more, but bargaining and posturing over several remaining issues has continued.

The union put on a show of strength Labor Day, packing a downtown plaza beside City Hall with thousands of supporters. Addressing the crowd, Lewis called Emanuel a "liar and a bully," the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Emanuel – and the contract negotiations – will be in the national spotlight this week, just days before the strike date: He's scheduled to address the Democratic National Convention.

In Pilsen, people are quick to point out how important the school is to the entire community, located southwest of downtown.

Ninety-five percent of the 430 preschool-through-eighth-grade students at Perez elementary qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, Principal Vicky Kleros said. Even so, it's been designated as a fine- and performing-arts magnet cluster school, earned a Level 1 ranking for academic performance. It also was one of the first CPS schools to implement the rigorous new national Common Core curriculum, meant to improve performance in subjects such as math and reading.

Perez is also an important neighborhood resource, a place where parents can take courses in technology, learn to read and write English and work toward a general equivalency diploma, Kleros said.

And like parents in many other Chicago neighborhoods, those in Pilsen simply can't afford for their children to not be in school. Showing up late or leaving early from a job can mean unemployment, Rayas said.

"They need the school so THEY can function," he said.

Perched on the steps of the neighborhood's squat, red-brick buildings, parents spoke of a school that made them feel special, one with kind and hard-working teachers who hopefully will receive a hefty raise.

Christina Adame lights up when she talks of how Kleros stopped her on the street to tell her how well her 11-year-old son performed on a standardized test.

"The principal said that to me," she said, still sounding amazed.

Single mother Danielle Hernandez moved here in March so her son could get help with ADHD and Tourette's syndrome, things that weren't available at his school in the western suburbs.

"He's getting speech therapy and it's helping him a lot; his grades are getting better," said Hernandez, a waitress whose two younger children attend Perez's Head Start program. "A teacher called yesterday. They're good people."

If there is a strike, Kleros said the school would be open from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every school day so children still could eat breakfast and lunch and participate in activities. After that, library and park district buildings will be open – all part of a $25 million school district strike contingency plan.

Even students, in Pilsen and in other Chicago neighborhoods where gangs and drugs have long been problems, recognize that less time in school means more time for trouble to find them. Fifth-grader David Quach said as much last week while playing basketball.

"For kids, it (school) gets you out of the street," he said.

___

Associated Press writer Tammy Webber contributed to this story.


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  • Karen Lewis

    Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, centre, tells reporters at a news conference outside the union's headquarters that the city's 25,000 public school teachers will walk the picket line Monday morning after final-day talks with the Chicago Board of Education failed to reach an agreement over teachers' contracts on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • Karen Lewis

    Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis walks to a news conference outside the union's headquarters in Chicago to announce that the city's 25,000 public school teachers will walk the picket line Monday morning after talks with the Chicago Board of Education broke down on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • David Vitale, Karen Lewis

    Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale informs reporters at a news conference outside the Chicago Teachers Union Headquarters that final-day talks with the union failed to reach an agreement over teachers' contracts on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012 in Chicago. CTU President Karen Lewis subsequently announced that the city's 25,000 public school teachers will walk the picket line Monday morning for the first time in 25 years. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • Karen Lewis

    Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, right, tells reporters at a news conference outside the union's headquarters that the city's 25,000 public school teachers will walk the picket line Monday morning after final-day talks with the Chicago Board of Education failed to reach an agreement over teachers' contracts on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • Teachers and pro-teacher community groups rally in front of a building the Chicago Teachers Union has designated its strike headquarters on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012 in Chicago. The union has vowed to strike on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012 if an agreement over teachers' contracts is not reached with Chicago Public Schools by Monday. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • Members of the Chicago Teachers Union distribute strike signage at the Chicago Teachers Union strike headquarters on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012 in Chicago. The union has vowed to strike on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012, should it fail to reach an agreement over teachers' contracts with Chicago Public Schools by that date. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • Teachers respond enthusiastically to passing drivers honking their horns in support as they distribute strike signage at the Chicago Teachers Union strike headquarters on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012 in Chicago. The union has vowed to strike on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012, should it fail to reach an agreement over teachers' contracts with Chicago Public Schools by that date. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • Members of the Chicago Teachers Union distribute strike signage at the Chicago Teachers Union strike headquarters on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012 in Chicago. The union has vowed to strike on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012, should it fail to reach an agreement over teachers' contracts with Chicago Public Schools by that date. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • Members of community group Parents 4 Teachers display pro-teacher posters outside City Hall on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012 in Chicago. The Chicago Teachers Union has threatened to proceed with plans to strike on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012 if weekend negotiations with Chicago Public Schools over teacher salaries and working conditions fails to deliver an acceptable outcome. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • Members of community group Parents 4 Teachers display pro-teacher posters outside City Hall on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012 in Chicago. The Chicago Teachers Union has threatened to proceed with plans to strike on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012 if weekend negotiations with Chicago Public Schools over teacher salaries and working conditions fails to deliver an acceptable outcome. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • TaliSol Medina

    Eight-year-old TaliSol Medina, left, a third-grader from Galileo School, puts the finishing touches on a pro-teachers poster for the Pilsen Alliance community group in front of the Chicago Teachers Union strike headquarters on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012 in Chicago. The union has vowed to strike on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012 if an agreement over teachers' contracts is not reached with Chicago Public Schools by Monday. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • In this Aug. 22, 2012 photo, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks at a Chicago Board of Education meeting in Chicago.

  • In this Friday, Aug. 31, 2012 photo, Vicky Kleros, principal of the Manuel Perez Jr. Elementary School in Chicago's predominantly Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood, just southwest of downtown, looks through files at the school. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said more than 26,000 teachers and support staff in the nation's third-largest school district don't want to strike, but are prepared to do so for the first time in 25 years. If there is a strike, Kleros said the school would be open from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every school day so that children still could get breakfast and lunch and participate in activities that would keep them off the streets. Later in the afternoon, the local library and park district buildings will be open - all part of a $25 million school district strike contingency plan. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • In this Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 photo, Emily Ponce, 8, a second-grader at Manuel Perez Jr. Elementary School, in Chicago's predominantly Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood, watches her brother Jose Ponce, 13, a Perez eighth-grader, as he talks about the chance of a teachers strike. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said more than 26,000 teachers and support staff in the nation's third-largest school district don't want to strike, but are prepared to do so for the first time in 25 years. It would be the first big-city strike since Detroit teachers walked off the job for 16 days in 2006. The last Chicago teacher strike was in 1987 and lasted 19 days. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • Members of the Chicago Teachers Union hold an informational picket outside Willa Cather Elementary School, calling attention to ongoing contract talks with the Board of Education on Monday, Aug. 20, 2012 in Chicago. The union says it is still trying to reach an agreement on wages, health benefits, and job security. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • A student watches a Chicago Teachers Union informational picket outside Willa Cather Elementary School, calling attention to ongoing contract talks with the Board of Education on Monday, Aug. 20, 2012 in Chicago. The union says it is still trying to reach an agreement on wages, health benefits, and job security. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • In this June 6, 2012 file photo, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks to the news media after casting her ballot during a strike authorization vote at a Chicago high school. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

  • Chicago Board Of Education President David Vitale address reporters after the board unanimously rejected an independent fact finder's recommendation to give teachers a double-digit pay raise, Wednesday, July 18, 2012 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

  • Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard speaks at a back-to-school initiative event in Chicago, Wednesday, July 18, 2012. At the event, Brizard said that an independent fact finder's recommendation to give teachers a double-digit pay raise would cost the district $330 million, lead to thousands of teacher layoffs and increase class sizes. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard hands a package to a student during a back-to-school initiative event in Chicago, Wednesday, July 18, 2012. At the event, Brizard said that an independent fact finder's recommendation to give teachers a double-digit pay raise would cost the district $330 million, lead to thousands of teacher layoffs and increase class sizes. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

  • In this Sept. 9, 2011 file photo, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, left, and Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard greet students as they arrive at Carl Schurz High School in Chicago.

  • In this June 6, 2012 photo, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis casts her ballot during a strike authorization vote at a Chicago high school.

  • From left, first-grader Travios Slater, fourth-grader Kiante Byrd, their grandmother Jeanette Byrd, their aunt Letitia Daniel, mother Felisha Slater, and cousin Randall Darring pose on Daniel's front porch, Friday, June 8, 2012, in Chicago.

  • In this Oct. 27, 2011 file photo, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right, visits with Brandy Toliver, left, and Mariah Neyland, in their first-grade class at the CICS Washington Park School in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

  • In this Nov.16, 2011, file photo, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks at a news conference in Chicago. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

  • Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn hands a pen used to sign a landmark education reform bill to the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, at a bill-signing ceremony, Monday, June 13, 2011, in Maywood, Ill. The bill makes it harder for teachers to go on strike and easier for educators to be fired. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn holds up a landmark education reform bill that makes it harder for teachers to go on strike and easier for educators to be fired at a bill-signing ceremony, Monday, June 13, 2011, in Maywood, Ill. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, speaks to teachers during a protest June 22, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. Hundreds of teachers gathered to demonstrate outside the offices of the Chicago Board of Education and marched through the city's financial district protesting the board's recent decision to rescind a 4 percent annual raise promised to the teachers in their contracts. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Chicago school teachers demonstrate June 22, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. Hundreds of teachers joined in the protest outside the offices of the Chicago Board of Education and marched through the city's financial district to protest the board's recent decision to rescind a 4 percent annual raise promised to the teachers in their contracts. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Chicago school teachers display protest signs from inside a school bus as they leave a demonstration outside the Chicago Board of Education building on June 22, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. Hundreds of teachers demonstrated outside the board's offices and marched through the city's financial district to protest the board's recent decision to rescind a 4 percent annual raise promised to the teachers in their contracts. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (L) listens to Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard while participating in a forum about education in big cities at the Katzen Arts Center on the campus of American University March 2, 2012 in Washington, DC. Calling their municipalities 'city-states,' Emanuel, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported the idea of individual school districts being able to compete with states for the $4.35 billion 'Race to the Top' grant program created by President Barack Obama. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)