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First Day Of School Arrives, But Teachers' Strike Could Start Next Week

UPDATED 09/04/12 - 4:34 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A new year began Tuesday for Chicago Public Schools students, but it could be interrupted after just four days if a possible teachers' strike goes ahead.

CBS 2's Derrick Blakley reports there were high fives all around as Mayor Rahm Emanuel greeted students at James Shields Middle School on the first day that all CPS students were in class this school year.

Meantime, as CBS 2's Susanna Song reports, Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard and other school officials made a big splash at an assembly at Roberto Clemente Community Academy high school, 1147 N. Western Ave.

But parents and students weren't so sure about the kickoff of the new school year, with a looming teachers' strike that could cancel classes beginning Monday.

The mayor took no questions from reporters on Tuesday, as the clock ticked closer to a possible strike.

But at UNO's Officer Donald J. Marquez Charter School, the mayor listed five first-time school improvements that could be set back by a walkout.

"Longer day, longer year, more science high schools [and] technology high schools, more kids going to kindergarten, and more rigorous academic standards," Emanuel said.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio's Regine Schlesinger reports


Meantime, at the assembly at Clemente, radio personalities cranked up excitement, professional athletes and hip-hop music brought kids to their feet, and Brizard ensured the students they would be in good hands.

"You've got amazing teachers and a principal working very hard for you, to make sure you have what you need to be successful," Brizard told the students.

With less than a week until the strike deadline, some anxious parents said teachers should get paid more.

Donella Villegas said, "If teachers are not getting what they deserved, something should be done, because the city always finds money for something else, except for education."

Fellow CPS parent Santa Hernandez said, "I'm also concerned about the strike, but people have to make a living, and if the teachers feel that they need a higher pay raise to … teach our children, well then, let it be."

Those sentiments don't surprise Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.

"I think we've had so much support from parents and community; and they understand what our issues are," she said.

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As she hailed a taxi to head to the bargaining table on Tuesday, Lewis said the important thing is, talks are continuing.

Brizard agreed.

"As long as the adults remain at the table, no one walks off, we can get this thing done before next Monday," he said.

Many teachers are holding out hope for a fair contract, and some are upset they are not getting their scheduled 4 percent raise. Sources tell CBS 2 the district is offering its teachers an 8 percent raise over four years, and wants to form a committee to create a new pay system.

Teachers are also expressing concerns with teacher recall, feeling that if schools consolidate and close as planned for the year to come, veteran teachers could lose their jobs. Those teachers want a guarantee that they are the first hired back.

Brizard said Tuesday morning that officials are doing everything they can to avert a strike.

"One is that we really understand the stress on our families and our students, and we have groups of people who are working very, very hard to make sure that next Monday is a full school day, so we're negotiating and made some good progress over the weekend," he said. "We're scheduled every day this week to find a resolution, so hard-working folks are making sure next Monday is a full school day."

Both sides sounded a bit more optimistic on Tuesday, with reports of some movement over the weekend. But there still has been no breakthrough on a full contract deal.

The two sides are scheduled to negotiate every day until the strike deadline on Monday.

The union's House of Delegates will get an update on talks on Wednesday, when they hold their regularly scheduled meeting.

Brizard said officials have already resolved over 400 issues with the union.

"This weekend, we got, again, closer to an agreement. Again, we're not there yet, but we have a week, and we've got to make sure it's done before next Monday," he said.

If there is a strike, CPS officials are prepared, Brizard said.

"First of all, we cannot replace our teachers. I need my 25,000-plus teachers to be in the classroom next week to teach our kids. Wonderful what's happening in our schools; I want to make sure it continues. But if the leadership decides to go on strike, we have prepared about 145 sites to provide breakfast and lunch for our kids and other activities – faith-based organizations, not-for-profits, a lot of folks are getting prepared just in case. But again, my hope is that I never have to execute that plan."

Brizard said he is not personally at the bargaining table, and that other officials have asked him to "stay back for a second."

Despite talk of progress in contract negotiations, parents are concerned about the possibility of a strike going ahead.

"I have faith that teachers are going to take into consideration the kids," said Judy Vazquez, a Clemente parent. "The kids should always come first."

Vazquez says her daughter -- an honor student and volleyball player -- can't afford to lose school days.

"They should have come up with an agreement long time ago," she said.

For star Clemente athletes Martrell Robinson and Corey Brown, a teacher strike may cost them their dreams for college.

"I want to play football. I want to be here on my team with school," Robinson said.

"That's one of my only ways to make it to college, a football scholarship," added Brown.

The Illinois High School Association will decide next Monday if games and practices can continue in the event of a strike.

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