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In strike ‘for the students,’ students made sure their voices were heard

Dundee-Crown students Tyler Jones (left) MartHarasimowicz  march with teachers December 4 2012 during D300 teachers strike outside district headquarters

Dundee-Crown students Tyler Jones (left) and Martin Harasimowicz march with teachers December 4, 2012 during a D300 teachers strike outside the district headquarters in Carpentersville. December 4, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 29, 2013 6:21AM

This is another in a series of stories on people and events that shaped our communities in 2012.

CARPENTERSVILLE — It started, like many causes do now, with a bracelet and social media, and, as the saying by Margaret Mead goes, with a small group of thoughtful, committed people.

In this case, that small group was four Dundee-Crown High School students who wanted to support their teachers as the clock ticked down this fall to a possible teachers strike in Community Unit School District 300.

And, as union and school board officials both repeated at the heart of their nearly year-long negotiations were the students, those students wanted to make sure the student voice was heard.

So when Local Education Association of District 300 declared an impasse last month in its nearly year-long negotiations with the District 300 Board of Education, they decided, senior Desiree Sulzmann of Sleepy Hollow said, “Well, we are D300. We support our teachers. Let’s do this.”

That’s when Sulzmann and her schoolmates senior Tyler Jones, 17, of West Dundee; junior Mary McNicholas, 16, of West Dundee; and junior Martin Harasimowicz, 16, of East Dundee, organized their own student union, “We ARE 300.”

“We should have a voice, too,” Sulzmann said.

Walking the line

In the lead-up to the one-day teachers strike earlier this month, while Sulzmann, Jones and McNicholas ordered black bracelets and puff-painted white T shirts, Harasimowicz got to work on a Facebook page “to make people aware,” he said.

He started out posting photos of the four students with their “We ARE 300” bracelets, stitching them together into a collage on the Facebook page, Harasimowicz said. He quickly was approached by many more students who wanted to be pictured as supporters, who changed their own profile photos to include the bracelets and joined the cause, he said.

“It was cool to see students not only get involved, but they wanted their faces to be a part of it,” Sulzmann said.

We ARE 300 members also spoke during public comments as more than 500 people packed out one District 300 Board of Education meeting, about 200 at another.

And on Tuesday, Dec. 4, when more than 1,200 teachers walked out at 26 different schools across the district, student union members walked with them, with picket signs and permission slips in hand.

“I think we got successful when there was the night when students were like, ‘Are we on strike or no?’ I feel like our Facebook page became the source of information,” Sulzmann said.

That information was biased by their support for their teachers, she admitted, but since district families already received updates directly from the school board by phone and email, she thought it was important to share “facts that show the whole story and open the eyes of people who heard the messages.”

In all, 25 to 30 students actively became involved in We ARE 300, McNicholas said.

And every time Harasimowicz logged on to Facebook, he said, the page had about five more “likes.” It quickly jumped from about 80 to more than 400, he said.

That page still has 460 members, nearly a month after the one-day teachers strike and one week after LEAD and the school board both ratified a three-year, $13 million contract.

Lessons learned

It wasn’t the first time the students had involved themselves in what was happening in the sixth-largest school district in Illinois: The same students all had gotten involved about this time last year in protests, some even traveling to Springfield, to end the economic development area around the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates.

They also had walked out of class and spoken at school board meetings leading up to the board decision to cut 363 teachers in March 2011, something that would have become permanent had LEAD not reached concessions that year with the school board. That’s something the teachers union has said led to the strike this month, or, at least, to the rift between the school board and top administrators and the teachers that led to the strike.

Board President Joe Stevens said that involvement by students is “healthy” and “good training for them in real life.”

“We’re actually quite in favor of it. We’ve never discouraged that — again, as long it’s their own, independent thought.”

Not all the responses the students have received have been so positive, though.

Some people had called them “uneducated,” Sulzmann said, or their favorite — “brainwashed.” They all also had been called to the office at Dundee-Crown after speaking at one school board meeting and told there’d been complaints about their tone.

Sulzmann said she knows they made some mistakes along the way.

But both Sulzmann and McNicholas said they want to pursue politics, and Jones said he wants to become a teacher.

All four agreed organizing We ARE 300 was a learning experience.

It taught them leadership in a way joining a school-sponsored club never could, McNicholas said.

It taught them about the power of social media, Harasimowicz said. And it taught them about unions, he said: “When you’re out there talking to people, unions stop being unions. They start being moms and dads and people who are active participants in the community.”

And Jones said, “The process of it taught us a lot about what it takes. This is really what it takes: people making their voices heard.”

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