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No school should go without a nurse, a social worker and a librarian

I left Chicago to work in a suburban school district. Now I see first-hand how these professionals make a big difference for students.

A fleet of school buses outside a suburban high school.
A fleet of school buses outside a suburban high school.
Pioneer Press/Sun-Times

Seven years ago, I stood proudly as a member of the Chicago Teachers Union during the 2012 teachers’ strike that catapulted both poor working conditions for teachers and poor learning conditions for students into the limelight.

Since then, teachers’ strikes have happened across the country. And now all eyes are on the CTU: Will Chicago teachers strike again?

Many people have drawn parallels to 2012, but the situation is much different. In 2012, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked teachers to work a longer school day and year without any extra compensation. An independent fact-finder sided with the CTU and said teachers should be paid for that extra time. Emanuel didn’t buckle, and teachers went on a seven-day strike until he did.

This time around, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has promised the CTU a 16% raise over 5 years. CTU is asking for a 15% raise over 3 years, but this isn’t the major sticking point in negotiations. The CTU wants positions designated in the contract — nurses, librarians and social workers — that have virtually disappeared, leaving Chicago students without vital support.

I left CPS for East Leyden High School in suburban Franklin Park, so I feel it’s inappropriate for me to say whether or not my former colleagues should strike. But I will say that CTU’s demands are well worth publicizing, because in many suburban schools, both in wealthy and working-class areas, these positions are standard.

I left a job I enjoyed at Lindblom Math and Science Academy so I could live outside of the city, which I couldn’t do while working in CPS. But part of my decision also had to do with job security. I was one of only 25 high school librarians in CPS, a district with over 150 high schools.

My new school, East Leyden, has a student body similar to that of some CPS high schools: 51% low-income and 60% students of color. And we have a school nurse, a school librarian, and three school social workers — all full-time.

Our maintenance and transportation staff are hired and managed by the district. In contrast, CPS has privatized janitorial services, and those private companies left many schools filthy.

East Leyden provides transportation to and from schools; CPS does not.

When I think about my current students’ daily experiences at Leyden, I notice the differences that CTU is drawing attention to. My students can ride a bus to school without worrying about the cost. They walk into a clean building with clean classrooms. They can visit a vibrant library with a certified librarian, before and after school and on their lunch periods. If they feel ill, they can go to a nurse’s office, where our registered school nurse will see them. If they experience trauma or have anxiety or depression, they can turn to one of three social workers.

This is not the experience most CPS students have. Not only do they pay their own transit costs — which can cost families hundreds of dollars a school year even on a reduced fare — some students must take multiple buses to get to school. Their schools often have dirty bathrooms and mice running around the classrooms. More often than not, their school has no library. If a student feels ill, they better hope it’s on the day when the part-time nurse is there. The same goes for seeing a social worker, as they too are shuffled between schools.

My point is not to argue that these concerns should — or should not — be addressed in the Chicago teacher’s contract.

Instead, I want to make this point: CPS students deserve the same educational experience that kids just like them are getting in the suburbs.

I firmly believe CPS, if it truly has the will, could provide this experience.

Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in CPS for 15 years. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva

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