Equity & Diversity Opinion

Chicago Teacher: Inhumane Working Conditions are Inhumane Learning Conditions

By Anthony Cody — September 16, 2013 6 min read
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Guest post by Sarah Chambers.

At my large elementary school on Chicago’s southwest side, the mercury on the thermometer soars to a scorching 90 degrees. Sweat drips down the students’ little round faces, their hair plastered to their foreheads. It’s only 9am, not even at the peak of the day’s heat. Already, a student has become ill. Another student tries to cover his nose with a wad of blood-soaked Kleenex as it drips onto his shirt and down to the floor. The boy runs to the bathroom holding his nose with bloodstains on his palms. He stands over the sink with blood gushing out for over 10 minutes, covering the sink a crimson red. His nose does not stop bleeding. Never have I ever seen such a horrendous nose bleed.

As the Chicago Public Schools opened for the year, scenes like this one were not unusual as hundreds of schools have regularly used classrooms without air conditioning. The exact numbers are unknown as when we asked them, CPS themselves didn’t know. Unable or unwilling to maintain a solid count or communicate with the power company, we are left to alleviate the suffering of our students. It is important to understand that this is not only incompetence, but also a genuine plan to sabotage and destroy traditional schools and open charter schools. Just this year, the Board took out a multi-decade loan and spent millions to close 50 schools because they said there were too many schools and we had a deficit. Many of the schools were high performing and parents and students fought hard to save the schools they loved and had chosen. CPS ignored their choices and destroyed those schools. The next month, plans were released to approve the opening of a dozen new charter schools at an even greater cost.

I hand the student a roll of paper towels and walk him down to the office to call his mom for an early dismissal. I ask him, “Have you had bloody noses like this in the past?” He tells me that he had one last night after being in our 90-degree school and other times last year during another heat wave.

By the time we arrive in the main office to call his mom, he had soaked through an entire roll of paper towels. I tell the secretaries about his situation and they respond that multiple students had nosebleeds that past two days. Yesterday, close to 50 students went home on early dismissal due to heat related illnesses.

My student was not so lucky because no family member could rescue him from the horrendous temperatures. After 30 minutes of continuous bleeding, his nose finally clots. We keep him in one of the 5 air-conditioned rooms in our large school.

Sadly, over the past two days, this was not the only incident in my school. Students were vomiting and feeling dizzy from heat exhaustion. One teacher had already vomited multiple times this week and had nose bleeds. Another teacher’s doctor told her that she should not work at our school because the heat could trigger life threatening asthma attacks.

Not only are these extreme learning conditions harmful, they are unproductive. Most classrooms have their lights turned off, blinds closed to slightly cool off the classrooms that are packed with up to 37 students. The teachers that are lucky enough to own functioning fans (often purchased with their own money) have slightly cooler rooms but the sound of the fan causes students to have difficulty hearing the instruction.

Just last year, I was one of the rank-and-file bargaining team members and Strike Captains that led 30,000 Chicago Teachers Union members on a 7 day strike. While CPS had passed state laws prohibiting us from specifically striking over classroom conditions, many of us felt that we must stand to fight against these inhumane classroom conditions. Day-after-day we spoke of the need for heating and cooling in our schools, reasonable class sizes and basic facilities for our students. While we fought hard, in the end, Chicago Public Schools’ leadership refused to budge in any way to improve conditions for our children.

These learning and working conditions are unjust and are not uniform across all Chicago schools. Many charter schools, after paying only rent their buildings for $1, have blowing central air or cooling units throughout their beautifully remodeled buildings. This year alone, CPS slashed the public school budget by 17% and added 80 million to charter schools. While claiming a major budget deficit, CPS supports charter school operators with proper funding for basic necessities like air-conditioning and Mayor Emanuel sends his children to a unionized private school that has air conditioning, libraries and access to tremendous resources.

Tim Cawley, the Chief Administrative Officer for CPS (who is currently receiving a waiver of state law to live outside of the district so his own daughter does not attend CPS despite criticism from the Inspector General), has said in meetings with parents that CPS had to increase the charter budget to comply with their commitments. It reflects closely the language from the Charter Compact that CPS signed with the Gates Foundation in 2011. CPS appears to be following the plan of the Compact despite missing out on funding in later years.

Within the compact, CPS committed to “equitable resources for all schools” through an increase in funds available to charters schools per pupil and for facilities needs. This may seem counterintuitive given that in the compact document itself, it notes that charter schools enroll special education students of highest need at less than 20% the rate of district schools and English Language Learners at just over half the rate of the district schools. So when I look into my classroom and see my students suffering due to this lack of resources, I know part of it is due to a leadership that has interpreted their agreement with Gates to mean that my students deserve less.

These disparities highlight that Mayor Emanuel and his appointees consistently prioritize their own plans to privatize Chicago education over the basic human rights and learning conditions for hundreds of thousands of Chicago children. Cawley has gone on record to say that they will not invest capital money into schools they are considering closing in the future.

Every child in every school deserves safe learning conditions. When a parent sends their child to school, they expect their child to come home in one healthy piece, not gushing blood or vomiting from heat exhaustion. Schools, the anchors of the community, should always be the safest place for our children, no matter if it’s the $30,000-a-year lab school, a franchise charter school or the free public school down the street.

Along with the parents and students of Chicago, we as educators cannot allow this inhumanity to continue. As we fight against these cruel inequities, we hope that you will stand with us. Those with a heart for children cannot allow them to be treated in this manner.

Sarah Chambers teaches elementary school in Chicago, Illinois.
Image is by a Chicago first grader, drawn last week, used with permission.

What do you think? Have you seen or experienced inhumane teaching and learning conditions in your school? How can we make sure our students get better conditions?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.