CPS special ed parents could benefit from strike in the long run — but bear tough burden in meantime

Special ed staffing levels have emerged as one of the stickiest points of contention that led to the strike that got underway Thursday.

SHARE CPS special ed parents could benefit from strike in the long run — but bear tough burden in meantime
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Celeste O’Connor and her daughter Chloe Eugenio, who uses a machine to speak, spent the first day of the teachers strike at home Thursday.

Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

At Alcott Elementary in Lincoln Park, special education support staff form “the backbone of our school,” as one mother put it.

But special ed staffing levels have emerged as one of the stickiest points of contention that led to the strike that got underway Thursday by the Chicago Teachers Union. The issue is so important to workers that for the first time in history, the union representing 7,500 special education and other support staffers, SEIU Local 73, joined teachers on the picket line.

Special education students could have the most to gain from the strike’s resolution if the unions get what they want: guaranteed increases in nursing staff written into the contract —rather than just promises in CPS’ budget. SEIU seeks better pay and benefits for its classroom aides, who are also objecting to being pulled away from children in their care to fill other gaps at schools.

But special ed families also are in a tough spot as long as the 32,500 teachers and school staffers continue to walk picket lines. Their needs make qualified childcare difficult to find or cost-prohibitive, and some parents aren’t confident that the sparse staff CPS has dispatched to keep school buildings open while unions picket outside can handle their children’s complex needs.

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Celeste O’Connor kept her daughter, Chloe Eugenio, and son, Connor Eugenio, home on the first day of Chicago’s teachers strike.

Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

Chloe Eugenio’s mother rearranged her work to keep her and her brother, Connor, home in Lincoln Park Thursday after briefly considering CPS’ contingency plan, as did the other moms of kids with complex needs she knows.

Nearby Alcott Elementary’s leaders are wonderful, Celeste O’Connor said, but her 12-year-old’s daily care plan spans five pages.Chloe, dressed Thursday in Local 73 purple, is non-verbal, needs help with toileting and isn’t safe on stairs without someone standing right behind her.

“To me, it’s worth it,” O’Connor said of the strike’s goals. “Everyone relies on them for everything. ... They are the backbone of our school.”

Working part-time in real estate, O’Connor figures her family can hold out for five days. But, she added, “I’d hate for it to end too soon and then have there be concessions that everybody is unhappy with.”

Crystle Saylor, a special ed teacher at Canaryville’s Tilden High School, also is a special ed mom of two boys at Byrne Elementary in Garfield Ridge. Both schools have supportive staffs, but neither has a social worker every day, “so we’ve got to schedule the times our children are going through something,” she said sarcastically.

For her younger son, who is on the autism spectrum, “being out of school is going to cause a slide” in learning, she said. But Saylor will take them picketing with her until a contract is in place.

“This is for the greatest good,” she said.

CPS officials wouldn’t say Thursday how many special education students showed up at school buildings which remained open and staffed by principals, central office workers and private agency nurses. (One vocal CPS’ special ed critic said a top special education attorney was assigned to her son’s school.) In a Wednesday night letter, CPS released a few details about their plan.

Just three students showed up to the Ray Graham Training Center high school at 23rd and Wabash streets, teachers said.

Special ed teachers Kimberly Reid and Abisola Bakare said the amount of paperwork they are responsible for have steadily gone up since they picketed in 2012, leaving them less time to be with students. Part of that stems from the state, which took control over CPS’ special education department after kids were found to have been denied services following cost-cutting “reforms.”

“This is bigger than just a strike,” Reid said. “We’re trying to change the schools — it’s not about just money and benefits.”

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Valeda Shaver, a licensed practical nurse at Christopher Elementary, pickets outside her school, 5042 S. Artesian, Thursday morning

Lauren FitzPatrick/Sun-Times

Along 51st Street, Christopher Elementary School teachers and nurses in CTU red, and special education classroom aides — known as “SECAs” — in purple SEIU shirts crowded the sidewalks. More than half the young students enrolled there get special education services, many have feeding tubes and catheters, and nearly all are considered low-income.

Andre Henry lamented how aides like him were frequently pulled away from kids to do other jobs, especially at other CPS schools.

“SECAs are supposed to exclusively work with kids,” Henry said.

Nurses bemoaned the decline of quality medical care citywide since CPS privatized the bulk of its nursing services. And the ones who staffed more than one school praised what’s offered at Christopher but said there was a wide disparity in services between schools and neighborhoods.

None of Christopher’s high-need students turned up Thursday, school nurse Karen Rose said. Still it’s a hardship for families to keep children at home, veteran nurses Valeda Shaver and Francine Shelton said.

“It’s going to be very hard for them. They have to work,” Shelton said. The administrators inside “can’t give the children the care they need.

“As long as the parents are for us, we’re not going to lose,” she said.

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Teachers and support staff picket at Christopher Elementary on the South Side.

Lauren FitzPatrick/Sun-Times

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