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All Things Considered

Remembering the Chicago teacher strikes of the 1980s

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Sign making at teacher's strike, Nettlhorst Elementary School (Alison Cuddy)
In the 1980s Chicago Public Schools were a mess. They had no money, terrible working conditions and poor educational standards. Teachers walked out four times between 1983 and 1987. Kathy Pick's children were in elementary school then.
"It was a devastating situation, particularly the last strike, which I believe was 19 days."
In response Pick and other parents set up what they called “strike schools.” 
"We would find a space, like we had a Boys and Girls Club, that we could convert it into classrooms that would be from like 9 to 1."
Pick thinks the school system is much better now. Back then she wouldn’t think of sending her kids to the neighborhood school. Now she says, "It's one of the better schools in Lincoln Park."
But Judith Stein thinks the current system still needs work. Stein taught English at Kenwood Academy in the 1980s. "I think today’s teachers have been under far worse pressure," Stein said. "Both political and community and everything else, than even we were — and we were always under pressure."
Stein didn’t support every teacher’s strike in the 80s. But she knows why they’re necessary. "The truth is when you’re back is up against the wall, you have to do something to be heard."
Earlier strikes did result in major school reforms. And they may have left their mark on those who lived through them — including Karen Lewis. The current head of the Chicago Teachers Union was one of Judith Stein’s students.

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