CHICAGO — Antoine Kennedy, 10, hunches over a chair that has become his school desk in a poorly lighted, stuffy community center basement, writing about one dream and thinking about another.
"I would like to be (football player) Walter Payton so I can have a lot of money and fans," his essay begins. But, when asked what is most on his mind these days, he says: "I'm not in school and I'm supposed to be."
And he is not alone.
"I want to go back to school to learn," said Joseph Woods, 7, a second-grader.
"I think this is going to hurt me," said Naritta Haywood, 13 and in the eighth grade.
"There isn't nothing on the street for us to learn," said Arnaz Lyons, also 13 and an eighth grader.
Antoine, who dreams of playing professional football, expected to start fifth grade in a school for gifted students almost three weeks ago, but he is still waiting for classes to begin. Along with 430,000 other Chicago children, he has been shut out of the classroom by a strike of 42,300 school employees, including almost 29,000 teachers, who are deadlocked in salary negotiations with the cash-poor Chicago Board of Education.
The school strike is the ninth in 18 years in Chicago and at least the third interruption Antoine can remember in his short educational life. Although small gains were reported in negotiations Wednesday, both union officers and school officials said they saw no chance of settling the dispute this week.
For now, Antoine must be satisfied with a makeshift "alternative" classroom staffed by a volunteer social worker. It meets in the Marcy Newberry Assn. Center--a 104-year-old settlement house west of downtown that helped generations of immigrants adjust to city life.
There is no accurate count of how many Chicago children are attending temporary centers or taking instruction at home from specially scheduled programs on public radio. Only about 80 students, ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade, attend each day at Newberry, in a poor section of the city wedged between a private housing development with 2,000 residents and a public housing development with at least 10,000 residents--most of them children.
Newberry is among 267 alternative activities centers that have been set up throughout the city in churches, recreation buildings and social service agencies. It has four temporary classrooms and is directly across the street from the deserted John M. Smyth elementary school, where the doors are locked and chairs stacked on desks can be seen through dirt-streaked windows.
Striking teacher Geraldine Holt, who usually teaches fifth grade at Smyth, is volunteering her time at Newberry, where her tiny classroom is crowded with 27 kindergarten and first- and second-grade pupils.
"I'm here to make sure the children get an education," she said. Holt, who lives in Chicago but sends her own two children to private school, is expecting a "marathon" strike and is considering changing her career after 10 years as a teacher.
"I don't think any work force--professionals--should repeatedly be subjected to this," she said.
Thousands of teachers rallied Wednesday outside City Hall to counter mounting protests from students and parents, who staged their own demonstrations. Hundreds of students demonstrated outside of the Board of Education's offices, complaining that the prolonged strike endangers their college chances and their future. The day before, hundreds of parents had demonstrated in the Loop business district, urging Chicago's business community to press for a settlement.
Benjamin J. Kendrick, executive director of the Newberry association and organizer of the citywide network of alternative centers, said the centers are "not an attempt to set up a parallel school system. These are sites where there are activities under supervision and where the children are safe. Some are like day camps, some have recreation and education and some are straight academic."
Plans for establishing the centers began more than a month before the strike, reflecting Chicago's resignation with chronic labor and money problems in its trouble-plagued school system.
"The Chicago Board of Education, unfortunately, is a negative as far as economic development is concerned," said John M. Coulter, director of business development for the Chicago Assn. of Commerce and Industry. "And it's not just the strikes but also poor (student) test scores. . . . This is one reason that the great mass of economic development projects end up going to the suburbs. I have to be perfectly frank about the city's schools . . . . Schools are not among the city's favorable points."
But students voluntarily attending classes at Newberry would rather be in their schools, good or bad.
"They should put us back in school and solve their problems on their own time," Naritta Haywood said.
"It doesn't make any sense," said Chanel Reed, 11, a sixth-grader. "We're missing what we're supposed to learn."
Ligenia Gooden, 8, a third-grader, added: "I just want to go to my real school."