By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Striking Chicago teachers fear that once they approve a new contract with the school district and end their strike, Mayor Rahm Emanuel will go ahead with dozens of school closings because of falling enrollment and poor academic performance.
The closing of schools and what happens to the teachers working in them has been a major issue in the bitter dispute, even though the disagreement over evaluating teachers based on standardized test results of their students has received more attention.
Urban school districts around the country are grappling with closing schools, including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Washington, according to a study last year on school closings by the Pew Charitable Trust.
"If they fire us, we're done," said Rhonda McLeod, a special education teacher at Gresham Elementary and one of the union delegates expected to vote on Sunday whether to end the strike. "We're terrified. We don't need to be dumped to the wayside. We're not trash, we're teachers."
Union and school officials said on Friday that they had reached a tentative agreement that could end the five-day strike and clear the way for classes to resume on Monday in the third-largest U.S. school district. ID:nL1E8KF1FV]
The union has called a meeting on Sunday of some 800 representatives from around the city to vote on whether to end the strike and allow more than 350,000 Chicago students to go back to school. Negotiators were putting the finishing touches on that agreement on Saturday.
Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has fallen nearly 20 percent in the last decade, according to the Pew study, mainly because of population declines in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
According to the union, 86 public schools in Chicago have closed in the past decade. Many have been replaced by charter or "contract" schools run by philanthropists, and charter schools now account for 12 percent of students, district figures show.
The Chicago Tribune reported this week that school district officials are considering closing up to 120 schools next year, which would be 17 percent of all schools in the district. Asked about this on Wednesday, Emanuel said it was too early to say.
Charter schools are publicly funded but non-union, and the teachers union has complained that they undermine public education and force more community schools to close. Their academic performance record compared with community schools is mixed, according to national studies.
But a powerful U.S. education movement is pushing charter schools. Reformers such as Emanuel and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, argue that schools performing poorly in academics should either be closed permanently, reopened with new principals and teachers, or converted to charter schools run by non-union personnel.
"The mayor and his hedge fund allies are going to replace our democratically controlled public schools with privately run charter schools. This will have disastrous results," union president Karen Lewis wrote in an opinion column in the Chicago Sun-Times on Saturday.
The union has fought for so-called "recall rights" giving teachers who have been laid off because their school closed priority in being rehired at another school.
Emanuel has said he wants principals to hire any teacher they want, not according to seniority or recall rights.
"I think it should be left up to the principal, locally," Emanuel told reporters on Wednesday.
An example of this conflict is Gresham Elementary school, where McLeod works on Chicago's South Side.
Some 90.8 percent of the 325 pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students who attend Gresham are classified as low-income, according to the school district.
The student population is 98.8 percent African-American, the district says, and the neighborhood is one that has been hit by a wave of gang-related murders this summer, drawing national attention.
There have been 366 murders in Chicago through the beginning of September, up 30 percent from a year ago, mainly due to gang violence, police figures show. Thirty-one of those deaths have been in the neighborhood where Gresham Elementary school is located, up 19 percent from last year. Over the last two years 23 children ages 10 or younger have been killed in the Chicago crossfire, some of them while walking to or from school.
McLeod said gunfire could sometimes be heard near the school.
Gresham elementary has been rated "on probation" by the school district for the last four academic years because its students have performed poorly on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), which measures students on reading, math and science.
While the school's academics have improved some, probation means that if the school does not improve further it could have its principal removed, be closed and its students transferred, or closed and reopened with new staff.
The teachers' union argues that they are working in exceptionally challenging conditions of poverty and crime and that this affects the ability of their students to learn.
McLeod said principals sometimes were pushed by bosses to hire new teachers who may not work out in rough neighborhoods.
"Over the years, I've seen a lot of teachers come in and go running out the door," said McLeod, a 15-year veteran of Chicago Public Schools who has a masters degree and teaches a college special education course.
Teachers and parents have also expressed worry that school closings can make life more dangerous for students, forcing them across gang lines into other neighborhoods and increasing the possibility of violence.
The beating death in 2009 of 16-year-old high school student Derrion Albert, captured on a cell phone video and seen around the world, has been blamed by activists in part on conflicts arising from school closings.
(Additional reporting by James B. Kelleher and Greg McCune; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Eric Walsh)