Guest Op-Ed: JCUA Teen Leader on the CTU Strike

by Sophie Leff

Sophie Leff (left) at a JCUA event

The following is an op-ed piece by Sophie Leff, a junior at Northside College Prep. Sophie did Or Tzedek’s Activism and Community Organizing  summer program in 2011 and Advanced Activism in 2012. She was a part of the leadership team who planned Or Tzedek’s first Winter Leadership Retreat in 2011. Sophie is currently the Social Action Vice President of Beth Emet Synagogue Senior Youth.

Sophie writes: “I do not prioritize national standardization. I prioritize safe physical and emotional learning environments; modern, relevant and challenging curricula; abundant and up-to-date instructional materials; and above all, good teachers. This isn’t a message only for CPS, it’s for the State of Illinois. Its negligent school funding (based on property taxes) provides the least amount of resources for those who need it most, and it’s a message for the nation as a whole.”

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Sophie Leff’s Full Op-Ed:

The other night, I posted on a social networking site that I was baking cookies for striking teachers and expressed my support for the Chicago Teachers Union. An acquaintance from Pennsylvania replied that he was all for unions, but that the Chicago teachers needed to stop striking. When I asked him to elaborate, he asserted that the strike should end because it “destroys taxpayers’ faith, kids’ educations, and the pension system.”

At the time, I sent back a respectful response saying that I believed bad taxation was the problem with our education system in the first place. The way Illinois funds public schools creates a direct correlation between the wealth of an area and the quality of education provided there. So I saw the strike as a step towards fixing things and not destroying them.

Then it hit me. This 16 year old guy from some East Coast suburb has no idea what it’s like to grow up in Chicago or what it’s like to go to school here…and he doesn’t want to know. He has no idea that a good education is no longer a right in this city; no idea that you have to fight for it or buy it at a premium.

What I should have said is that it’s my education, thank you very much. It’s already survived several attempts at destruction and not a single one of those attempts was perpetrated by my teachers. On the contrary, students and teachers are in this fight together.

I go to one of the city’s best selective enrollment public schools and I worked very hard to get there.  However, the only thing that sets me apart from any other student in the city is that when I was little, one of my many teachers fostered within me, a lifelong love of learning which is what has gotten me to where I am today.

Admittedly, all of my teachers have not been fantastic. But I strongly believe good teachers are one of the best educational tools a school district has at its disposal. I believe that they are more powerful than a longer school day, more powerful than a longer school year, more powerful even than a smaller class size. Here I am, a CPS student, saying that what I need to succeed is not ten more minutes of instructional time, but an army of inspirational, devoted, and well-provided for teachers.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the contract negotiations taking place and I don’t claim to know what is a fair contract and what is not. I understand why people think some of CTU’s demands are outrageous. I understand why people dislike Karen Lewis. I understand why parents are angry, but nonetheless, I think it is crucial that this strike take place no matter its outcome.

It’s high time that a message is sent telling CPS what is important to the people it serves and employs, teachers and students alike. I do not prioritize national standardization. I prioritize safe physical and emotional learning environments; modern, relevant and challenging curricula; abundant and up-to-date instructional materials; and above all, good teachers. This isn’t a message only for CPS, it’s for the State of Illinois. Its negligent school funding (based on property taxes) provides the least amount of resources for those who need it most, and it’s a message for the nation as a whole.

This morning, I had the opportunity to go picket at my school with my teachers and a handful of other students. It was an inspirational and moving experience that at several points nearly brought me to tears. Seeing my teachers stand up for what they believe in and seeing their students there to support them has inspired my more than anything I’ve ever experienced before. I know now that, though I’m hesitant to paint CPS as the villain in every circumstance, I will be behind my teachers 100%.

This strike isn’t about money, it’s about making the point that students deserve a good education and that teachers deserve the resources that will help them provide us with it.

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