09/17/2012 03:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Putting Children First


No matter which side you're on in the Chicago teachers' strike, everyone agrees on one thing: children need a safe place to go when school is not in session. Kids need to be off the street and out of harm's way. If they can be in a setting where they can spend their out-of-school time productively, so much the better.

Parents know it, particularly if they're working parents who need alternative options for childcare. Teachers know it, since they are as concerned with their students' overall welfare as they are with equipping them with the educational skills they need to thrive. Chicago Public Schools administrators know it, which is why the district arranged to offer 147 Children First sites where kids can go for six hours and two meals during the strike.

CPS went farther, too. The Children First initiative has also enlisted 78 libraries, 78 park district sites and roughly 120 community-based organizations to be available to students who are at loose ends. The latter range from Boys and Girls Clubs, Salvation Army facilities and YMCAs to various ministries, museums and even dance and martial arts instruction centers. Some of the paid programs, like the Chicago Children's Museum, are offering deep discounts to help.

As the head of one of the programs on CPS' community-based organization list, I have seen this scenario unfold firsthand. Language Stars, the full-immersion foreign language instruction program for children from 1-13 that I founded in 1998, got the call to participate in the Children First contingency plan just before the strike began.

CPS knows us because, in addition to the seven language learning centers we run in the metropolitan Chicago area, we are under contract to provide foreign language instruction at many Chicago public schools. Local educators are familiar with our methodology, which uses a lively mix of games, music, arts and crafts, and purposeful silliness along with native-speaking teachers to teach Spanish, French, German, Italian and Mandarin in a way that young brains and tongues can absorb. And they know that our program provides not just a safe place to go but also a learning opportunity.

To me, that is one of the bright spots in this strike. Both the school district and the parents seem committed to making the best of a sad situation by finding alternative activities with an educational component. As CPS parent Susan Griffin told me, "I want to do everything I can to make this time off from school productive learning time. That's why we have taken advantage of Language Stars classes as well as free museum days that were offered this week, along with going to beaches and parks to fill the time."

For our part, we are making room at the regular after-school 4-5:30 sessions we hold for school-age children at our Chicago center; adding early afternoon classes during the strike so that children can stay for a half-day; and lowering class fees for the young people affected by the strike. And parents are responding.

Some current Language Stars students are adding a day or two to their usual schedule, and accelerating their language learning in the bargain. In addition, new families looking for more than a babysitting service are finding us through the Children First list of participating community-based organizations.

To be sure, we can serve only a limited number of students. And -- regardless of my own strong feelings about the importance of foreign language instruction in general and early language learning in particular -- no one is arguing that these extracurricular activities are a replacement for school. But by using the time out of school effectively, many in the Chicago community are turning lemons into lemonade. That thought will stay with me long after the strike is over.

This blog post is part of HuffPost Chicago's "State of CPS" series, which features perspectives from Chicago Public School teachers, students, administrators, staff, parents and others experiencing recent changes to the district firsthand. Interested in sharing your take? Email us at