Teaching Profession

Waiting Games: Inside a Chicago ‘Children First’ School

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 11, 2012 3 min read
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The city’s 144 “Children First” schools have been the object of much interest over the course of the teachers’ strike. The Chicago Board of Education is using some $25 million to keep students occupied—and out of trouble—at these schools, which are being staffed by principals, administrators, and parent and community volunteers. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is scheduled to give remarks at one of them later today.

The Chicago Teachers Union has blasted the program from the start, saying it sounded like a “train wreck” and that the students would be supervised by adults not trained to work with children. On its website, the union’s official list of the Children First schools had the file name “scab schools,” which tells you a lot about how the union views the program. Today, the union instructed its members to make an extra-heavy presence at Children First schools.

But what’s happening inside of them?

Today I visited the the Crown Community Academy, a Children First school located in the Lawndale neighborhood on the Chicago’s West side.

Inside, children were separated into three groups by age: primary, elementary, and secondary, and were engaged in a variety of nonacademic activities. About 60 children in all attended the program today, the school’s principal, Lee M. Jackson, told me. That was an increase from just 30 the day before.

Primary students were in the gym, dribbling balls, hula-hooping, and playing “double dutch” with jump ropes. Elementary students were hard at work in an arts-and-crafts center.

The older students, meanwhile, were playing board games: Sorry, the card game Uno, Apples to Apples. They were remarkably quiet and well behaved, a fact that Jackson chalked up in part to the fact that they’d had their gym time earlier.

It’s hard to get a sense of programming at all of the 144 schools. A five-year old enrolled at the program at Beidler Elementary, the daughter of a mom I spoke to yesterday, reported playing the Angry Birds on an iPhone during her school day.

For his part, Principal Jackson said, “I’d much rather it be a school day with teaching and learning. But at least we know they are safe for four hours here.”

Lawndale is one of Chicago’s poorer neighborhoods. Although there are signs of revitalization—there’s a community garden not far from the school—some of the homes are boarded up and the lawns need weeding. Many families here are renters or move often; under normal circumstances, more than 99 percent of enrolled students at Crown qualify for federally subsidized meals.

The 144 Children First schools were selected with the input of the district’s network chiefs, who are more or less regional superintendents below the schools CEO. They were picked with an eye towards geographic distribution, since school buses are not running. (The Chicago Transit Authority is giving kids free rides during the strike.)

Like many others, Jackson said he’s unsure what will happen if the strike continues more than a few days. “We’re taking this day by day and not making any long-term plans,” he said.

If the strike does continue, he thinks more parents will choose to enroll in the Children First program, as word of them spreads.

As Jackson walked me out of the building, he greeted the picketing teachers warmly. “You doing okay out here?” he asked. One of them jingled some bells she had in a friendly response.

When I queried the teachers, they had great things to say about Jackson’s leadership. But they still think the building should have some educators on hand who can teach second-languages, music, and drama. Steve Taylor, a middle-school science teacher at Crown, asserted that schools in the city’s tonier North-side neighborhoods do.

“It’s who has the right ears, the right pull in the city’s power structure,” he said. “It’s old-city politics, nothing new.”

Many other community groups, churches, even groups affiliated with city parks are offering their own programs to keep students occupied as the strike continues.

UPDATED, 5:35 p.m.:
The city has announced that the Children First centers will, beginning Thursday, stay open until 2:30 p.m., an additional two hours. It’s also expanded the number of such sites to 147.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.