The Chicago Public Library is on hand this week to help absorb the influx of students who’ve been displaced as teachers continue their first strike in 25 years.
A few of the 76 branches throughout the city saw double the amount of middle and high school students on Monday and Tuesday, while others say traffic “feels like an average summer day,” says library spokeswoman Ruth Lednicer.
“Typically, a parent stays at home or they’ve already made some arrangements like leaving kids with family,” adds Lednicer, explaining that it’s branches in working class or immigrant neighborhoods such as Rogers Park and Little Village that are seeing more students show up.
Even though the library doesn’t allow kids under the age of seven to enter without an adult, some branches saw more elementary aged children than usual because the parents and caregivers who accompanied them wanted them to have some type instruction, she adds. The library is allowing kids to bring their own packed lunch and to eat in the community room.
But the YouMedia teen center, located at the library’s downtown Harold Washington Library Center, hasn’t experienced heavier traffic, probably because “teens are enjoying the time off to sleep,” says Lednicer, explaining that it’s still a popular destination for the usual crowd.
Regardless, all branches are fully prepared to handle more young patrons this week, with extra computers being aside—and the one-hour limit suspended—for high school seniors taking advanced placement courses or recovery classes to help boost their grades, Lednicer says.
While all branches plan to maintain their regular hours of operation (two regional libraries and the central library are open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and others are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.), many were sent additional adult volunteers from the community service organization Chicago Cares and student helpers from City Year to assist with the extra activities being offered throughout the day.
“We thought it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared,” says Lednicer, adding that the Chicago Public Library Foundation even sent extra bins of games. “But this is what librarians do every day—except it’s on a larger scale.”
While the strike has kept about 350,000 Chicago students out of school, they do have other options. The district has designated some 144 elementary and high schools as Children First sites for families who are unable to find a place for their kids during the work day. These locations, which plan to extend their hours from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. starting Thursday, offer activities such as reading, writing, and computer-based programming, and also serve meals, which is important because 80 percent of district kids qualify for free or reduced lunch, says Lednicer.
District officials have also designed about 60 churches as safe havens for children to go during the day. Other sites include the Chicago Park District, museums—which have waived admission for the week—and community-based organizations such as the YMCA, and Boys and Girls Clubs.
“Everyone has stepped up and is prepared for the whole week,” says Lednicer, adding that since school just started, the experience feels like an extension of the summer. “Of course we love having them in the library, but they really belong in class.”
As the teacher’s strike enters its third day, school librarians told SLJ that their work emails have been turned off so there’s no way of communicating that way with fellow media specialists. Their main concerns include being asked to use of a new system that ties teacher evaluations to student standardized test scores.
“It doesn’t evaluate the depth and breadth of that person’s job performance—and it sets the groundwork for merit pay,” says a librarian who asked to remain anonymous.
Also, elementary school librarians are fighting to keep in their contracts the four extra prep periods they need to process and shelve books, says the librarian.
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