School's back for 300,000 Chicago students after 11-day teachers' strike

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By Brendan O'Brien and Andrew Hay

CHICAGO, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Chicago teachers returned to work on Friday after a grueling 11-day strike as parents hoped the deal struck between the teachers' union and district would improve their children's education.

Teachers on Wednesday approved a five-year tentative agreement with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) that includes a 16% raise for teachers, additional social workers and nurses, enforceable class-size caps and extra support for English language learners and special education.

"I'm thrilled that the strike is over and I think the things that the teachers won are very significant and they're going to have a big impact on the quality of education," said parent Julie Dworkin, 49, who relied on friends and family to look after her 12-year-old and 14-year-old, so she could keep working during the strike.

It was the second-longest in a wave of U.S. teachers' strikes that played out across West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and California over the past few years, topped only by a three-week June strike in Union City, California.

Like the earlier walk-outs, Chicago teachers pushed for money to ease overcrowded classrooms and more support staff, in addition to seeking a wage increase for the district's 25,000 teachers.

"Welcome back to school, CPS students!" tweeted Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a first-term Democrat who campaigned on improving the city's schools but said the school district could not afford the increases in spending on counselors and nurses that teachers sought.

For Marlena Ceballos, the deal was essential to allow her to meet the teaching needs of her special education students.

"I wanted to fight for my kids," said Ceballos, 29, who was on the front lines of protests and became so desperate for a deal she attended civil disobedience training and was prepared to be arrested.

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Pressure for a settlement ramped up in recent days as teachers braced for their first paychecks reduced by the strike, as well as the prospect of health insurance expiring on Friday.

"I was really thinking of crossing (picket lines)," said Ceballos, adding that she has diabetes and could not afford higher healthcare costs if she lost her current insurance.

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The strike brought hardships for students forced to stay home and in some cases, stay indoors out of fear of going outside and being mistaken as gang members, teachers said.

Student athletes missed chances to take part in championships where colleges look for scholarship candidates. Some irate parents unsuccessfully sued for their children to be able to compete.

But Rousemary Vega, 39, the parent of three school-age children, said teachers had long been "robbed and starved" of resources, and she would have supported the strike for another 11 days.

"They came out, they flexed their muscles and they won," said Vega, a receptionist at a non-profit housing organization. "They taught our children a big lesson, that when you stand up for justice and what's right, then you win." (Reporting By Andrew Hay in New Mexico and Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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