THE BLOG

Back to School -- Not So Fast

09/04/2012 12:34 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2012

Last week, on the very same morning Karen Lewis announced a ten-day strike notice, Abby at Crosstown Tree Service texted that a truckload of woodchips was speeding our way. Over the past four years, parents have been working like gangbusters to transform a narrow stretch along the side of my neighborhood public elementary school into an Outdoor Classroom, all on a budget of nothing. With our ribbon-cutting set for eight days away, Crosstown's donation was like manna from heaven. In the blink of an eye, a football field's worth of shredded trees almost completely blocked foot traffic on Aldine street.

The following day, while CPS and CTU negotiators locked horns in some airless room downtown, the East Lakeview school community dealt with the woodchip crisis head-on. Facebook pleas and old-fashioned carnival barking drummed-up scores of volunteers who gathered the school's random shovels, rakes and buckets and began the Sisyphean task of transferring woodchips from the ginormous pile, up and over the rusted 100 year-old wrought iron fence, onto the winding garden paths. Roughly seven sweaty hours later, the thankless job was done.

Had Fox News reported on the event, they might have noticed the absence of teachers, and held it up as yet one more example of their professional sloth. Of course, all our teachers were inside the building, diligently setting up their classrooms in preparation for the first day of school. No parent shoveling real or metaphorical woodchips in service to my school believes that our fine teachers are to blame for the crisis effecting American education.

And yet, I'm not the only parent who believes that a fair share of the fault lies with the CTU for it's unyielding defense of a broken system. Wendy Katten, the voice of Chicago's Raise Your Hand Coalition, is a steadfast Lewis supporter, but worries that the CTU leadership may have oversold. Many parents have come to believe that a strike could address everything from "class size, increasing positions for arts, seeking fair compensation that doesn't include merit pay, ensuring teacher recall, to staffing a full-time nurse, social worker, psychologist, etc. in every school, obtaining air-conditioning for all, to shutting down Astroturf groups and freezing the expansion of the privatization of our schools." And, polar bears and penguins and global warming, too.

Back in a June blog, I argued that collective bargaining addressed precious few of these issues, and begged stakeholders to cool their jets. The blowback for joining the "Against Us" camp in such a public forum was as fierce as if I'd drawn and quartered the schoolchildren in the front playground. Some highly credentialed and beloved teachers asked that I skip their classrooms during the monthly school tour (a tour that I've led for almost a decade). Some parents stopped short of canceling playdates, but made it clear that I was no longer welcome to stay for coffee. Still others would have applauded my centrist position had I not felt the need to be so snarky. If all politics is local, what happens to your own kid is about as local as it gets. With such dry tinder, I should've seen it coming.

Now, my skin is not particularly thick (a real problem for a blogger), but here's the truth: many of my fellow parents share my profound respect for teachers, yet still believe that there's plenty of blame to go around. Many also share my respect for unions and will not cross a picket line, come what may. However, a great many working parents, predominately those who are minority and disadvantaged, do not have the luxury to stand on principle. In this economy, I sure wouldn't want to be the one to tell a mom to keep her kid home and risk losing her job, especially when there's little chance that this dogfight will bring about significant change.

Unless, of course, the crazy dream I had last night comes true: Rahm, after a long chat with Quaxelrod at the Democratic convention, returns to Chicago to find that Lewis has actually -- gasp -- pulled the trigger, turning some 400,000 kids onto Chicago's increasingly dangerous streets. In a blinding rage, Rahm channels his inner Reagan, fires every single teacher, and carves CPS into charter pie. As a stopgap measure, suburban scabs and striking NFL referees fill teacher positions while the jobless reapply. The whole process would likely take a few weeks to sort out, time easily recovered by eliminating all the CPS holidays and professional development days, which were on the chopping block anyways.

I'm jolted awake by the mayor's first 7:00 am tweet from the vortex: "Pack your lunchboxes, little #$&*@s, time to go to school!" In 2016, Rahm runs for president as a fiscally conservative Democrat, best known for extending the Chicago school day and breaking the CTU (and wins).

The more likely scenario: teachers will go on strike on the 10th, kids will get bored, adults will sort-out adult problems, Springfield will be Springfield, Illinois will hold its rank as second-to-last in state education funding, CPS will slog-on under crushing bureaucracy and a $1.1 billion plus long-term debt, and the status quo will more or less continue.

On the bright side, Nettelhorst's Outdoor Classroom officially opens on the 8th, two days before the union's school bell rings. As it's technically not in-school proper, our students will have a safe, happy place to ride out a strike with their classmates without choosing sides. When the dust settles, and it will, all the players in this game will say that this conflict has taught our kids valuable lessons, although it's difficult to gauge exactly what those lessons will be from this side of history.

Like most of my mommy pals, I've spent my Labor Day weekend not celebrating labor, but buying school supplies and shelf-stable lunch fare. Strike or no strike, the kids frolicking about our new garden will be soaking up the last rays of summer sun and getting back to basics. I hope these five messages from our Outdoor Classroom will be as crisp and clear as the September air:

1) Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
2) Dirt under your fingernails feels good.
3) Sustainability is critical to the health of us all.
4) Growing things need lots and lots of water, air, nutrients and sunshine to thrive.
5) Work Hard. Play Nice. Share.

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