Chicago teachers stage nation's first-ever charter school strike for sanctuary schools, better teaching conditions

Screen Shot 2018-12-07 at 12.26.49 PM.png

In the early hours of the morning, hundreds of teachers and thousands of families finally got word that today would not be just another Tuesday. Unionized educators from 15 Acero charter schools walked picket lines instead of hallways today, after calling the first-ever charter school strike in American history over true sanctuary schools and better teaching conditions.

Negotiations between management from the UNO/Acero network and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) bargaining team continued late into Monday night. Spokespeople from the union were adamant that they were ready to strike over the demands on the table, including those to protect the population of more than 90 percent Latinx students and more cultural diversity in hiring and curriculum. The decision was authorized by union members in late October with a 98 percent affirmative vote.

Members are also demanding “smaller class sizes, increased special education funding, more autonomy over curriculum and grading, equal pay for equal work, additional resources for classrooms and students, and better compensation and treatment of paraprofessionals, who work for low wages despite their essential role in school communities,” according to a press release issued by CTU early Monday morning.

At a CTU press conference yesterday, fifth grade teacher and member of the bargaining team Martha Baumgarten said management has refused to codify sanctuary school protections into the teachers' contracts. This stance affects not only Acero students and their families but staff as well. The union is demanding that schools refrain from sharing information with immigration officials and allowing anyone inside schools without a warrant, as well as provide resources for families to remain in the country.

Three of Acero’s elementary schools are in West Side neighborhoods Pilsen, Little Village and Humboldt Park, which have a majority Latinx population. The current political climate, along with reports of immigration officials in these areas and across the country have made the topic of sanctuary schools more poignant than ever.

Sarah Jones, a fourth grade teacher at Acero’s Octavio Paz in Little Village, described  how heartbreaking it is to not be able to guarantee her students’ safety against deportation.    “Last year when President Trump was elected … well actually, the day after he was like, sworn in, was one of the hardest days that I’ve ever had teaching,” she said. “There was a real fear in the classroom and in the community of like, what that would mean.”

Though Acero staff members don’t know the immigration status of the families they serve, the students themselves are more aware than ever. It’s an issue that permeates the classroom and impacts student learning, said visual arts teacher Vasiliki Fosses.


“It’s an equality issue for all of my students. They should be able to have the best education without fear,” she said of the kids she works with at Acero’s Pilsen and Gage Park campuses. “I know when I grew up, my school was the safe place to go to. I want my kids to feel that.”


Union members from Acero are hoping to set a precedent for other charter school networks in institutionalizing the sanctuary schools addendum. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) affirmed its own sanctuary protections for district schools in early 2017, but some charter schools have yet to follow suit.

In addition to listening to students’ fears that they or their family members will have to leave the country, teachers must wear several other hats. Fosses said it’s become so common for staff to be approached for “reference letters” for immigration officials that some schools have drafted a blanket document for families facing the possibility of getting deported.

Demands around diversity also include hiring more brown and black teachers and improving conditions especially for paraprofessionals, where the turnover rate is the highest. Currently the teachers at Acero are majority white and paraprofessionals are majority people of color, according to Hilary Naffziger, a seventh grade teacher and bargaining team member.

This demographic in staff does not accurately reflect the largely Latinx student population. Naffziger and other CTU representatives spoke to this at the press conference yesterday, saying the need for kids to see themselves represented in teaching staff is part of building a community that isn’t constantly shaken by turnover.

Less pay for longer work days and longer school years at Acero, as well as overcrowded classrooms, interferes with teachers’ ability to effectively reach each student. Classrooms of 30 students or more at Acero are the norm, an obstacle Naffziger must tackle every day. “They shouldn’t have to fight for my attention day after day, in a classroom filled with 30-plus students,” she said.

According to Baumgarten, Acero staff works 20 percent longer over the school year than CPS staff, and gets paid on average 15 percent less. This disparity not only contributes to teacher turnover, but trickles down into the classroom as well. “I know that our working conditions are our students learning conditions — and they can be better,” Fosses said.

Interwoven into all the items on the table is the demand for transparency from Acero. Before Acero rebranded two years ago, it was called UNO Charter School Network, and known for its English language immersion training for Latinx students. The word acero means steel in Spanish.


“Rebranding yourself and really trying to become a serious education provider in the city of Chicago is more than about putting a new nameplate on top of your door,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey yesterday. “It’s about giving educators the tools they need to deliver that education. And that’s really what this contract bargaining is about right now.”


After six months of requests, Acero finally released a financial audit for the most recent fiscal year less than 24 hours before the scheduled strike date. According to Sharkey, the delay makes sense after looking at the report. “That audit shows that this is a charter school network that’s sitting on $10 million of cash which they didn’t have the year before, saw it’s operating revenues increase by 29 percent year over year, and yet we are not getting serious treatment at the table,” he said.

A spokesperson for UNO/Acero said last week that the company is disappointed about the strike announcement, but not entirely surprised. “Based on statements the CTU has made, there is a real focus on making an example out of charter schools,” reads their official statement.

Striking union members held a press conference this morning at Acero’s Archer Heights campus and a rally this afternoon at Acero’s headquarters downtown for press and allies.