Good Life

How one Chicago high school journalist covered his own teachers’ strike

As contract talks broke down between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools, the editor-in-chief of the Paw Print at Walter Payton College Prep started planning for a strike.

Knowing he'd lose access to his newspaper teacher while she was on picket lines, Will Foster consulted her and started pulling together coverage.

"Several weeks before the strike started, it was on our radar," Foster said. "It was something that could be a big school-related news event."

When it finally ended on Halloween, the 17-year-old high school senior grabbed some candy and spent the afternoon writing a column about what the past two weeks had been like for his fellow students at Payton and across the city.

Over Kit-Kats and M&Ms – a similar diet to some other Chicago reporters working late that night – Foster recapped the longest teachers strike in decades.

"A lot of what I did for my fun Halloween experience was writing my strike recap column for the website, which might not sound very fun, but I felt like I needed to sum up what we as students had kind of felt over the last couple weeks," Foster said in a phone interview Friday. "That gave me extra fuel."

Here's how he started the piece: "The strike ended the same way it began, with Lori Lightfoot standing in front of a gaggle of reporters in downtown Chicago. Three Wednesdays ago, when the mayor announced school was canceled the next day because of the Chicago Teachers Union's planned walkout, few in this city would have imagined that by the time students returned to school there would be snow on the ground."

He later ticked off a few lingering questions, an insight into the concerns of the students whose lives the tentative contract is supposed to improve: "Will the resources the city has promised in this contract actually make it to schools – and will they improve teaching and learning conditions, as hoped? How will students catch up on the coursework they have missed?"

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot reached an agreement with union leaders to make up five of the 11 school days missed due to the work stoppage.

A few other students contributed during the strike, while Foster ran the daily coverage, self-publishing and sharing stories to both his personal and Paw Print social media accounts. Back at school Friday, many students and teachers told him they'd appreciated his coverage.

"As soon as the word came down that the mayor had canceled school for the next day, I wrote a story about that and then I just decided to write something roughly every day," Foster said.

He was also trying to hit the Nov. 1 deadline for early college applications, so he didn't get out on the ground as much as he would have liked to. People sent him photos from rallies, and he watched live streams of news conferences. His eyes "started to glaze over from refreshing Twitter so many times." He got a little help from a former Paw Print editor, who took many of the picket line photos Foster picked up.

Self-publishing was a little nerve-racking, but nothing he hadn't done before, he said. His parents read everything, but usually after it was already out.

The strike he was covering also got in the way of the Paw's first print edition of the year. Now, they're hoping to have it out by the end of this week.

"We may have more strike-related content coming in the future," he said. Those plans include coverage of the ratification vote, when all 25,000 Chicago Teachers Union members decide whether to accept or reject the tentative agreement.

He envisions interviewing athletes on Payton's sports teams about what it meant to have their seasons end early. That "weighed heavily on a lot of kids," Foster said. "And college application stress was something that was big."

Foster said he turned in all of his materials on time to University of Chicago, his first choice, and to the universities of Michigan and Illinois, but is waiting on counselors and teachers to submit their parts. Several Illinois and Chicago-area universities are making special exceptions for CPS students to help deal with strike-related application problems.

"Most of the colleges are being pretty understanding which is good, but it did definitely cause stress for students," he said.

It was a balancing act, he said. "At times my parents had to tell me, 'maybe save the Paw Print 'til after you finish (your applications),' " he said.

At first, students were excited about the time off from school, but then it became a "surreal routine," with announcements every day that school was closed the next, he said.

"I just tried to keep covering it and contextualize it for kids, what the arguments were being made," he said. "It felt like a big responsibility. I had to get it right. I wanted to because I want it to be factual, I wanted to be fair to both sides and obviously it was a heavily charged issue. Even within my school there were a lot of different opinions on the strike, who was to blame, who should do what. I wanted to do fact-based objective reporting that informed people what was going on."

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