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Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, speaks outside the Chicago board of education meeting on Jan. 23, 2019.

Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, speaks outside the Chicago board of education meeting on Jan. 23, 2019.

Parents, union pressure Chicago on overcrowded classrooms

Complaining about classrooms with no space to move about and teachers with their hands full, parents and union members pleaded Wednesday with the Chicago school board to reduce class sizes and relieve overcrowding in elementary school classrooms.

“Kindergarten should be fun and exciting,” said Belinda McKinney, a teacher at Wentworth Elementary School in Englewood whose grandson is in a class of 39 students at the school.

“There’s no place to move in there,” said McKinney, whose grandson is asthmatic. She occasionally visits him during recess, fearing that he may have suffered an asthma attack that went unnoticed by a busy teacher. “And there’s no teacher who can keep 39 children safe on the playground!”

The push comes on the heels of a report released Wednesday by the education advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers which found that more than 1,000 classrooms in kindergarten to eighth grade have more than 30 students per classroom. The district’s maximum is 28 students in kindergarten to third grade, and no more than 31 students in fourth to sixth.

Of those, 13 classrooms have 40 or more students, including one kindergarten class with 44 children, the report found. That’s fewer than the 18 classrooms that had 40 or more students last year, according to the group’s 2018 analysis.

Speaking in front of district headquarters Wednesday, teachers union President Jesse Sharkey said that reducing class size was one of the top priorities going into negotiations, along with pay and benefits, staffing of nurses and librarians, and social demands like affordable housing. While the teachers union is limited in bargaining over class size, it can use public pressure to help force an agreement on the issue.

The district, Sharkey said, had given the union an initial counteroffer and has until Feb. 8 to hand over a more formal proposal. But so far, he said, “what they have now is anemic and incomplete.”

Board members did not respond to the public comments or union charges. 

The union also pointed to recent labor actions that had won gains on class size — most recently the agreement between the Los Angeles school district and its striking teachers to eliminate a clause that has allowed the district to ignore class-size caps in times of financial distress.

Some of Chicago’s overcrowding may be due to staffing difficulties. Along with districts around the state, the city has been experiencing a dire teacher shortage.

Norine Gutekanst, organizing coordinator with the Chicago Teachers Union, said that some Wentworth classes had no classroom assistants and others had to wait months for an aide.

Speaking in the meeting, the district’s chief education officer LaTanya McDade said the district is seeking a second kindergarten teacher for Wentworth. Once someone is hired, McDade said, the current crowded class would be split.

More broadly, however, she promised that the district was “working on creative solutions” to schools experiencing chronic overcrowding. 

Another parent, Valentin Quintero, who spoke at Wednesday’s school board meeting said his 6-year-old son, a kindergartener at Grissom Elementary in South Chicago, spent hours every evening trying to  learn information that his teacher couldn’t cover during class while overseeing more than 40 students.

Both Quintero and his son put in time trying to master lessons. “I can assure you that if all the parents around the neighborhood had time to come here and speak, you’d have 400 parents speaking out,” he said. “This is a safety issue and a health issue.”