CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago children returned to school today after teachers ended a seven-day strike that disrupted the daily routines of thousands of families and made the city a flashpoint in the debate over union rights and efforts to overhaul the nation's public school system.
Jayton Howard, a 16-year-old student on the South Side, summed up his feelings — and those of many others — in a word: "Great."
Union delegates voted overwhelmingly Tuesday night to suspend the walkout after discussing a proposed contract settlement with those in charge of the nation's third-largest school district. They said the contract wasn't perfect, but that it included enough concessions on proposed new teacher evaluations, recall rights for laid-off teachers and classroom conditions to return to work pending a vote by its more than 26,000 teachers and support staffers in coming weeks.
It was also a relief to parents. The strike stranded roughly 350,000 students and left many parents scrambling to arrange alternative care for their children even though the district kept more than 140 schools open for several hours a day for meals and activities.
Some parents expressed hope Wednesday that the tentative contract agreement would benefit students in a district grappling with high dropout rates and poor performance.
"They'll win from the strike," said Leslie Sabbs-Kizer, referring to her children as she walked them to a South Side elementary school.
Her son, 8-year-old Nkai Melton, said he was psyched for another reason: "Going on the playground."
For parent Erica Weiss, an end to the strike meant she wouldn't have to take her 6-year-old daughter to work.
"I am elated. I couldn't be happier," said Weiss, who had to leave work in the middle of the day to pick up her daughter from one of the schools that stayed open and then bring her back to her finance job downtown. "I have no one else to watch her. ... I can't even imagine the people who could have possibly even lost their jobs over having to stay home with their kids because they have no alternate care. It just put everyone in a pickle."
Wilonda Cannon, a single mother raising her four children in North Lawndale, a poor West Side neighborhood beset by gang shootings, said she was relieved that her two youngest were returning to class after spending the last seven weekdays with their grandfather.
She said she hoped the agreement was the beginning of something new for Chicago's public school system, which has long struggled with high drop-out rates and low test scores. It will take months if not years before parents and teachers will see whether the changes and contract provisions pay off for students.
"I don't know all the ins and outs (of the contract negotiations) ... but it does seem as though it's a step in the right direction," Cannon said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel — who filed a lawsuit this week to try to force teachers back to work — called the settlement "an honest compromise."
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