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Size matters 

Chicago teachers have almost no relief for overcrowded classrooms.

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click to enlarge NICOLE HONEYWILL
  • Nicole Honeywill

After last week's column about the looming Chicago teachers' strike, I heard from teachers with horror stories to tell about overcrowded classrooms—among other things.

Nothing new about that. I've been hearing horror stories about overcrowded Chicago classrooms since I moved to town in the early 80s.

But this year the teachers may strike over it—anything to force Mayor Lori Lightfoot to agree to a contractually enforced cap on the number of students in a classroom.

One horror story came from a sixth-grade teacher on the southwest side who didn't want her name or school mentioned. She had 43 kids in a classroom for most of last year.

I'm sure you can imagine what that's like. Not enough desks for the students. Barely enough space in the room. Not enough books. More papers to grade. Harder to keep everyone's attention. More challenging to meet the needs of the slower-learning kids without losing the attention of the faster-learning kids. And so forth.

She appealed for help. But there was not much the principal could do since there was no money to hire another teacher. CPS finally brought in a teaching assistant to help, but she was as green as the apples in the O.C. Smith song. The teacher ended up teaching the assistant almost as much as the kids.

When you hear stories like that, it's no wonder that more than 90 percent of teachers voted to strike.

As things now stand, there's almost nothing teachers can do when their classes are overcrowded. There's no language in the union contract that forces CPS to move students out of overcrowded classrooms. Teachers can't grieve the matter—that is, appeal it to an arbitrator.

CTU is prohibited by state law from even negotiating over the issue—the only union in the state with such a prohibition. If they strike over it, well, it's technically an illegal strike. And Mayor Lightfoot could go to court to ask a judge to slap a fine on the union or have its leaders tossed in jail.

Not saying the mayor would do that. But it's an option.

The CPS attitude toward overcrowded classrooms is much like its attitude toward schools without nurses, social workers, and librarians. Tough luck. Now shut up and go back to work.

Curious to see if other school districts have a similar indifference to jamming students into classrooms, I spent the better part of Sunday reading through various suburban union contracts. Don't feel too sorry for me—it was a welcome distraction from the wretched play of the Chicago Bears.

In short, Chicago is by far the worst when it comes to overcrowded schools. According to the CPS contract with the Chicago Teachers Union, board policy on class size is set "by section 301.2 of the Chicago public schools policy manual."

To avoid the Bears, I meandered over to good old section 301.2 in the CPS policy manual, where I found the following sentence:

"The total number of intermediate and upper grade students will be divided by 31 on a whole number basis, i.e., the division will not be extended to a decimal place. If the division is uneven, then the remaining students will be included in the primary membership."

Got that? Wait, there's more . . .

"The total number of kindergarten students will be divided by two, extended to one decimal place, and rounded up to the nearest whole number; this number will then be divided by 28, extended to one decimal place, and rounded up to the nearest half number."

Glad that's clear. Bottom line, CPS has class size goals of 28 kids in kindergarten and primary school and 31 in high school.

But these are just goals. If class size goes above 28, there's not much teachers can do about it, except wait till next year and hope things get better. Sort of like me and the Bears.

And you wonder why so many teachers in Chicago think CPS just doesn't give a shit about what goes on in classrooms—especially those in low-income neighborhoods.

In the suburbs? Well, it's a mixed bag. Some union contracts are more forceful than others.

District 97 in Oak Park automatically sends a teaching assistant to a kindergarten class that exceeds 21 students or an upper-grade class that goes above 24.

Some districts pay teachers extra money for overcrowded classrooms. District 99 in Cicero "agrees to pay a teacher, whose class exceeds thirty students, fifty cents per student per period per day."

You know, I think I may have found a district as cheap as Chicago's.

It's a little better in Lake Forest. If teachers think they have too many kids in a class, they can request a meeting with the principal. If that doesn't alleviate the problem, they can request a meeting with the superintendent. If that doesn't work, they can file a grievance. However, "only violation of the process can be grieved. The substance of the final report is not grievable."

It's similar policy in School District 39 in Wilmette. "The intent of this provision is to provide a process for teachers to raise concerns about class size and have the concern heard and addressed by the administration. The provision is not subject to the grievance process."

Of course, I have a hard time imagining parents in Wilmette or Lake Forest—two wealthy suburbs—putting up with more than 25 kids in a grammar school classroom, much less 43. They'd be on the phone raising holy hell and would probably run a slate in the next school board elections.

Which reminds me—Chicago still has an appointed school board.

Some of the strongest language comes from the union contract in District 64 in Park Ridge. If the union feels "the board has acted arbitrarily or capriciously with respect" to overcrowding, "it may file a grievance."

Now that's how you write a contract! My recommendation to students or teachers in an overcrowded Chicago classroom? Move to Park Ridge.

Consider it the Marie Antoinette approach to overcrowding in Chicago.   v

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