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First Day Of School Arrives; Longer School Day Debate Rages On

UPDATED 09/06/11 6:45 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The first day of school arrived Tuesday for students at Chicago Public Schools, in the midst of a battle between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union over longer school days.

As CBS 2's Mike Puccinelli reports, the union recently rejected an offer for a 2 percent raise in exchange for working an extra 90 minutes per day – the length to which Mayor Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer Jean-Claude Brizard are seeking to increase the school day.

But teachers at three schools – Skinner North Elementary, 640 W. Scott St.; STEM Magnet Academy, 1522 W. Fillmore St.; and Genevieve Melody Elementary, 412 S. Keeler Ave. – broke ranks and agreed to the longer school day.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio's Mike Krauser reports


In order to do so, the teachers essentially had to vote to waive some of their union rules and obligations. The schools agreed to the longer day in exchange for the 2 percent raises and lump sum payment to the schools of up to $150,000.

On Tuesday morning, Mayor Emanuel came to the STEM School, where he continued to pressure schools to increase the length of the day.

"Now we have an opportunity, as individual schools want, to take this pioneering project forward on behalf of our children," he said, "and parents constantly are saying – even adults without children – are congratulating the CPS and the schools that are taking this leadership and the teachers that are taking this leadership, and knowing when we say, 'Put kids first,' they're actually doing that, for the first time. And that's a victory for our children."

But to the union, the deal the city cut for a longer school day amounted to out-and-out bribery. They call it "plantation politics," but Brizard strongly disagrees with that characterization.

"When you think about 8 percent of our juniors are ready for college. You think about 50-somewhat percent graduation rate. You think about how many kids are in need of a much fuller, longer, better school day, many more schools have to do this," Brizard said outside the STEM School. "This is not about plantations. It is not about politics. It's about the students of Chicago."

Brizard added that the "better" school day that the union is seeking cannot be implemented without lengthening the school day.

"The union talks about the better school day, where you can have arts, music, longer blocks of literacy, mathematics and recess. I don't see how you make this happen in five hours," Brizard said. "This will allow a school to actually give teachers planning time, and to give students access to much better literacy and mathematics."

But opponents of the longer school day were also represented outside the STEM School.

"I'm here today to re-engineer Rahm's thinking about what unionism was, and better be, in the city of Chicago," CPS retiree Judy Dever said as she held a sign reading, "United We Bargain, Divided We Beg."

The sentiment is shared by many of the more than 20,000 unionized teachers.

The Teachers Union has filed a grievance, complaining that the process has undermined their collective bargaining rights, and they say it could be a violation of long-accepted fair labor practices.

Emanuel and Brizard also visited Skinner North and Genevieve Melody Tuesday morning.

Parents Pleased With Longer School Day

On Monday, kids who attend the three schools were playing at home, none of them thrilled about the fact that their school day will be longer.

"I said, 'Uh oh,'" said Skinner North pupil Ray Sansonetti.

But for the parents who spoke to CBS 2's Kristyn Hartman, it is a welcome change.

"I'm very excited about it," said Ray's mother, Gabrielle Sansonetti. "I think it's a good move for Skinner North in particular; the teachers there and the administration there is amazing, so this is something that the teachers, the administration, and the parents have been talking about for a while."

Gabrielle Sansonetti says the extra time will give teachers more time to broaden the curriculum.

"They could have more of what they call special classes at Skinner North. They can have more art classes; more gym classes. They can have recess twice a day, and they get more breaks, and everybody's not so stressed out trying to cram as much as possible into one day," she said.

Leonard Rau is also happy that Skinner is one of three schools that last week voted to lengthen the school day by 90 minutes.

"I'm really excited, because it's great to be part of a system where there's a lot of change happening, and change for the good," he said. "I see this as a great step forward, and I hope that we learn a lot at Skinner North that we can share with other schools, as they also hopefully change and embrace the longer day in a different kind of way."

But he says Skinner North parents and teachers have been contemplating a longer day for more than year, realizes other schools will likely move a bit more slowly.

"It takes time to bake a change such as this into the culture of a school, to make it a positive experience for everybody," Rau said, "and not every school is capable of moving that quickly."

And while Rau is excited about the longer day, his 2nd grade daughter Nina – well, not so much.

"I'm not too happy," she said.

But regardless of whether their schools are in the fight over longer school days or not, many students weren't ready to come back. WBBM Newsradio's Mike Krauser talked with some students at Catalyst-Howland Charter School, 1616 S. Spaulding Ave.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio's Mike Krauser reports


One boy, Desmond, said he was excited about the first day, but said he had to get up too early.

Principal Shawn Johnson said he supports the longer school day.

"A longer school day with quality instruction – it makes for good, successful principals, astrophysicists, astronauts, and future presidents of the United States," he said.

Charter schools are permitted to set their own hours for the school day, and at Catalyst-Howland, the day goes for 7 1/2 hours – one of the longer school days in Chicago.

Attendance Is Paramount

School officials also pressed to make sure as many of students possible attend the first day of classes. First-day attendance is a critical figure, given that federal funding that goes to the CPS system is directly related to attendance.

Brizard was hoping for more than 90 percent attendance, and pre-recorded phone messages from figures as prominent as Bears defensive end Israel Idonije, Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood, and rapper Common implored students to be in class on the first day, and every day.

The Museum of Science and Industry also offered free passes to students who attend the first day.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio's Bob Roberts reports


The Chicago Transit Authority offered free rides for kids and their parents for the first day of school, during reduced student fare hours.

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