Milo Gittings, a 15-year-old sophomore at Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park, speaks to media outlets during a D209 school board meeting on Tuesday. Proviso Teachers Union President Maggie Riley, standing to Gittings' right, and Proviso West teacher Carissa Gillespie, center, look on. Photo courtesy of Paul Goyette

This is the time of year that Desire Morales, a senior at Proviso West High School in Hillside, would be preparing for the softball season. Those plans, however, have been on hold since District 209 teachers went on strike on March 4.

“This is affecting our season,” Morales said at a rally held March 15 in the parking lot of the Sheet Metal Workers’ Local 73 Hall, 4550 Roosevelt Rd. in Hillside. Morales was among at least 100 people gathered in support of the striking teachers.

“We were supposed to have tryouts and we haven’t been able to have tryouts,” she said. “That means our season may be postponed because of this. Graduation could be postponed, as well as other activities for seniors like prom.”

Fatima Duran, a senior at West who also plays softball, said the burden of learning amid a historic teachers strike — the first one in District 209 in 22 years — has fallen most heavily on the shoulders of students.

“Any work our teachers gave us before this whole thing happened, we’ve been doing it,” she said, adding that she and other students have formed their own study groups. “We try to get together often.”

R. Sue Henry, a longtime advocate and organizer for the Proviso East Marching Band, said that, because of the strike, the band was not in the Forest Park St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 5.

Cletis D. Seals Jr., the Proviso East Band director, said the strike has also disrupted preparations for the Spring Concert and the popular Battle of the Bands competition.

Irma Perez, the parent of a former D209 student, said her daughter graduated in 2019, but the strike has still resonated with her, affecting her emotional wellbeing.

“She’s feeling depressed, really sad,” Perez said about her daughter. “She says, ‘They are destroying everything. Everything is gone.’ That’s what she says. She’s thinking about the other generation, the other students. She’s told me they will not have the privileges she had.”

“COVID was already a big disruption [for students],” said Diana Espin, a 19-year-old former D209 student who attended Tuesday’s rally in support of teachers. “This is another disruption to their senior year, which sucks, because I didn’t have my senior year. It was nice to see them have something and to see it taken away from them sucks.”

Danielle English, a science teacher at Proviso West, speaks during Tuesday’s school board meeting at Proviso West.  Photo courtesy Paul Goyette

After the rally, union members and their supporters marched around the block to Proviso West High School in Hillside, where that night’s school board meeting was to take place — the first since the start of the strike.

Before the meeting started, union members turned their backs on D209 Supt. James Henderson and other board members as they walked into the gymnasium.

Board members Claudia Medina and Amanda Grant, two vocal supporters of the striking teachers, entered through a separate hallway and were met with applause and cheers.

Several hundred people packed inside of the school’s cavernous gymnasium, animating the space with the electricity of a playoff basketball game. The crowd chanted (“Hey, hey, ho ho, Henderson has got to!”) and booed while the board discussed expenses ahead of  the meeting’s public comment portion.

Rodney Alexander, the D209 school board president, struggled through brief remarks related to the contract negotiations. Wearing an “I Stand With 209 Teachers” sticker on his shirt, Alexander, the board’s most vocal critic of district teachers, was frequently interrupted and heckled by an indignant crowd of community members who had lost their patience two weeks into the strike.

Alexander said the district negotiating team, which Supt. Henderson leads, had proposed a “‘cooling off’ period during which teachers and students would return to school as negotiations continue. Under this ‘cooling off’ proposal, our students would have been the winners and neither side would have lost.

“Unfortunately, the PTU has rejected this proposal,” the board president said. “We are disappointed that the union refused to consider this option, even knowing that a continued strike will only further disadvantage our students after almost two years of learning loss due to the COVID-19 […] pandemic.”

Alexander said the district is still proposing a 9% salary increase over the life of a three-year contract. The union, however, wants a 12.75% salary increase over three years, with a 4.25% annual increase each year.

But union members, which include roughly 280 counselors, librarians, social workers and teachers, are also calling for the district to improve conditions inside of the three high schools.

District 209 Supt. James Henderson and D209 board member Sam Valtierrez, left, during the district’s school board meeting on Tuesday. Photo courtesy Paul Goyette

Since Henderson’s hiring two years ago, complaints have accumulated about excessive fighting, classroom sizes that are too large, inadequate support staffing and bullying by top administrators (Henderson included), among other problems.

Danielle English, a Proviso West science teacher, spoke for most teachers and support personnel during her public comments at the March 15 meeting.

“I wonder why I have never felt more disrespected in my 12 years of teaching than when I’ve worked here and I’ve worked for [Chicago Public Schools],” she said. “I wonder why our board is so disrespectful to teachers, students and the community.”

Claudia Medina, the only school board member who spoke during public comments, urged the board to add at least one member to the district’s negotiating team and to ramp up the pace of negotiations.

“We need to be on the negotiating team,” she said. “We need to be negotiating every single day and we need to have kids back in schools.”

Students like Milo Gittings and Obafemi Adedajo, both 15-year-old sophomores at Proviso Math and Science Academy, said the district should give the teachers what they want. As long as a strike continues, he said, critical time will be lost for important academic preparations.

“I take a lot of AP classes and there are criteria you need to follow by certain times and with this, they’re getting pushed back,” Gittings said. “In the long run it’s going to [hurt our ability] to take certain classes in college. With sports, it’s halted our movement with a lot of our teams and things we’ve been training for, for over a year now.”

For seniors, I think prom may be canceled if this goes longer than three weeks,” said Adedajo.

The next formal negotiating session is scheduled for Thursday, March 17. By then, the strike will have lasted for 10 days — the duration of the last teachers strike in 2000.

“People who defend [Henderson] get pay raises, but I see teachers with signs saying, ‘My second job paid for this,’” Gittings said. “No teacher should have to be in that situation, when they’re some of the most important people in our society.”