Letter to teachers

Here’s what outgoing union chief Karen Lewis told Chicago teachers this morning

PHOTO: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis in 2016

Retiring Chicago Teachers Union chief Karen Lewis, who has been fighting brain cancer, sent a note to Chicago teachers this morning urging them to support former Vice President Jesse Sharkey as her replacement and endorsing CTU Political Director Stacy Davis Gates for the position of vice-president.

“Our enemies are banking on this transition in CTU leadership to confuse, conflate and co-opt our union,” she wrote. “Do not let them.”

It’s a fraught time for the powerful Chicago teachers’ union, which is entering its first round of contract negotiations in the post-Janus era. As a result of the ruling, school districts can no longer require their employees to pay negotiating fees to the unions that bargain on their behalf. Observers predict a decline in union membership and dues, which would limit the unions’ political power.

The union also has been facing a budget deficit and pressure to afford rent payments on both a new building on the Near West Side and its previous space, which it has not been able to sublet.

Lewis urged membership to continue to channel their energy into “a collective power,” going into negotiations. The contract isn’t up until June of next year, but the leadership hopes to put pressure on Mayor Rahm Emanuel in advance of the mayoral election in February.

“CPS may always be a hot mess,” Lewis wrote, “but with our due diligence, creativity, expertise and insights we can one day make this the strongest school district in the nation.”

Read Lewis’s full letter to teachers below.

Sisters and Brothers,

This week begins the new school year. May you each find success and new energy as you return to your classrooms and the profession you love.

As our new year begins, it is a time for us to renew our commitment to fighting for the schools our students and teachers deserve. Let us return to our Chicago Public Schools (CPS) classrooms with a renewed strength, laser focus and open hearts as we welcome our colleagues and students in this new season of growth and change.

As you know, I recently retired from CPS and therefore have resigned from my position as president of the Chicago Teachers Union. It has been a tremendous honor and privilege to serve in a leadership capacity and to join each of you on the battlefield for justice and equity in public education.

The decision to end my tenure was one that weighed heavily upon me and was done in consultation with my husband, family, friends and colleagues. Since taking office in 2010, this has been a constant fight against powerful forces and their myriad of allies that seek to destroy collective bargaining and rob our children of their futures. Yet, as great of an enemy as this system has been, I had no way of knowing that all of this was preparing me for the biggest foe of them all.

Yet, I am not afraid.

With any fight, clear vision and bravery are prerequisites of struggle. While I continue to restore my health, I encourage each of you to channel your energy into a collective power that moves our union forward and guarantees the wins we’ve secured—and the campaigns we have started will continue until every child has every resource needed to be successful.

In my fight against brain cancer, I am reminded through my faith that when storms come, the brave do not jump overboard. They do not abandon ship, nor do they panic. Even if the captain is down and storm clouds are gathering, the rest of the crew must steer the ship on its charted course.

As you enter your building, remember: We have a contract fight on our hands—and the racist, misogynistic, homophobic and elitist voices remain strong. Our enemies are banking on this transition in CTU leadership to confuse, conflate and co-opt our union. Do not let them.

Transitions are not meant to be easy. Change never is. However, I have worked side-by-side with Vice President Jesse Sharkey, who has assumed my responsibilities as president as laid out in the CTU Constitution, beginning when I was first diagnosed in 2014. Under his consistent leadership, the CTU will remain a focused, fighting union that protects the interests of its members and those we serve.

Any presidency can only be as strong as the rest of its leadership team. Continuity is important. That is why officers Michael Brunson and Maria Moreno remain valuable in their current roles of recording secretary and financial secretary in this administration. As Jesse’s role as president is formalized, the vice presidency now becomes vacant, and it is my hope that members will value the addition of CTU Political Director Stacy Davis Gates in that role.

Through our organizing, legislative and political efforts, the CTU has restored the pension levy, stopped the spread of non-unionized charter operations, and launched political campaigns that have sent educators Sue Garza, Brandon Johnson and Aaron Ortiz to public office. The CTU worked to reduce CPS’s gaping budget deficit, won back hundreds of millions of dollars from the mayor’s TIF slush fund, and fought off mismanagement and bank deals, charter companies and corruption. We successfully negotiated more than $10 MILLION for sustainable neighborhood public schools. Our political, organizing and communications model has been adopted by other labor organizations across the nation.

Even with these significant wins, there is still much more work to do. Let us channel our victories into renewed campaigns to ensure our careers are not threatened and that Chicago has an elected, representative school board.

Wages, benefits, and safe and collaborative working conditions are important to all of us and central to every contract campaign. But in a city rife with unemployment, poverty, and violence, so is ensuring that every student has access to a librarian, counselor, social worker, nurse, special education professional and the support services they need.

As I focus my attention on this next chapter of my life, I want each of you to remember that the detractors, naysayers and union busters will come. They will seek to take advantage of this moment in order to entice you to act against your own self-interests. However, if their offer does not make us stronger, if it doesn’t unite us, and doesn’t move our cause forward, then we must turn a blind eye to their schemes and keep our eyes on the prize.

CPS may always be a hot mess, but with our due diligence, creativity, expertise and insights we can one day make this the strongest school district in the nation.

Every teacher, paraprofessional and clinician who wears CTU red understands what this is about. Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes said it best when he challenged us in a work he entitled, “Democracy,” in which he states:

Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

Thank you all for your well-wishes, thoughts, and prayers. I love you all and I will see you soon.

Karen GJ Lewis, NBCT (Retired)
CTU President Emeritas

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.


From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!


From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.


From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.


From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!


From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.


From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!


From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.


From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.


From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”