Inside the humid fieldhouse at Eckhart Park, kids that aren’t normally in the same school building are sitting next to each other, quietly painting neon designs on canvas hats. Each table has kids of different ages.
On Friday, along with the normal mom and tots swimming class and other regular park activities, Eckhart Park became one of hundreds of contingency sites across the city. Chicago Public Schools opened 107 schools, 80 public libraries and 80 park district locations during the Chicago Teachers Union one-day strike so parents had a place to leave their kids if they were stuck without childcare.
Early Friday afternoon, the budding artists at Eckhart Park got some news: Mayor Rahm Emanuel was coming to visit. So some of them started brainstorming what they were gonna say to him.
Nine year old Dana knew exactly where she’d start: “Hi, what’s your name, cats or dogs, I’m a cat fan, you better not like dogs better than cats?”
If it turned out that indeed, the mayor did like dogs better than cats, her 10 year old desk neighbor, Somaya, said “she’d take it from there.”
Next to them, 10 year old Destiny, a fourth grader from Burley Elementary, was thinking of some more timely topics to discuss with the mayor: “I think I want to talk to him about um, the strike.”
Destiny said Friday's are her favorite day at school. It means students can pick their own activities, like playing tag, or even reading books on couches. With all the school closings on Fridays lately, Destiny is a little bummed.
“If he like, puts down the schools,” Destiny said, “then we will miss all Fridays, and that would be sad, because I love Fridays.
School was canceled by the district last Friday as a cost saving measure. When Mayor Emanuel showed up at Eckhart Park, he told reporters that there is a difference between what the district did last Friday and what the teacher’s union is doing this Friday.
“I don’t think the kids should pay a price for a political message. And there’s a difference between the economic hardships the city school district faces versus taking a political action and our kids taking a consequence,” Emanuel said.
Instead of picketing, the mayor said he wishes that the CTU would work with the mayor’s office for what he says is a common goal: To get the state to rework its funding system for education.
And while he’s glad these contingency sites are creating a safe place for students to be during the strike, he wanted them to be in the classroom.
“The park district is the largest after school program in the city of Chicago, but it should remain an after school program. I believe kids should be in school,” he said.
School will be back in session Monday, but students will have the day off again next Friday for a planned teacher prep day.