CHICAGO, OCT. 10 -- If Laurie Colton has learned one lesson growing up in Chicago's public schools, she said, it is: Never plan for the first day of classes.
"I can remember strikes back in kindergarten, and I was always asking my mother when was I going to go to school, when was I going to school," said Colton, 17, a senior at Lane Technical High School, the city's largest.
The nation's third largest school system reopened last Tuesday, as 430,000 public school students returned to classes after a record 26-day teacher strike.
Over the years, Colton and thousands of other students have had ample opportunity to see themselves as victims of the recurrent battling between the Chicago Teachers Union and the Board of Education.
This was Colton's sixth strike in her 13 years in the system. Since the teachers' first strike, a three-day walkout in May 18 years ago, eight strikes have followed.
"Teachers may be hurt by the strike, but it's not their future on the line," said Colton, who, like many Lane Tech seniors, plans to attend college and worries about meeting application deadlines.
This year's strike, which lasted 19 school days, meant that Chicago public school students have a month less than their suburban or private school counterparts to prepare for college-entrance and advanced-placement exams.
Lane Tech senior Eugene Dizon, 17, who takes advanced-placement work and wants to attend the University of Chicago, said he doubts the time can be constructively made up.
He said he does not think he will be very productive attending class during an extra week at Christmas and throughout spring break to meet the state's mandated 180 days of school. Graduation has been postponed until late June.
"I'm missing out on the education that I'm entitled by law to have as a citizen," Dizon said. He is worried, he added, about having to make up a month's work before advanced-placement testing in April.
Lane Tech Principal Maude Carson said that "during spring break time, kids and teachers need a break from one another" and alternative programs must be planned. Those programs have not been determined, she said.
Some teachers are rearranging lesson plans to make sure they cover the necessary material before the first college-placement exam in December.
"I'm pushing grammar now, pushing it very hard," senior English teacher Michael Mulvey said. "I'm covering in two days the same information I would have normally spent a week on."
"I think the students have come back more industrious. They've come back with the attitude of knowing they have to make up the work," he said.
But senior Frank Hrvojevic, 17, said it is not easy to learn subjects such as advanced chemistry quickly. "You're learning it for the first time," he said. "I don't think it's right that it should be speeded up."
Senior Tamara Jordan, 17, added, "If we refused to go to school like they refused to go to work, I'm sure we'd be penalized. They got something out of it, but we're the ones being penalized."
What the teachers got was a two-year contract that includes a 4 percent raise this year and another 4 percent raise next year. The board had wanted to impose a 1.7 percent pay cut; the union sought a 10 percent pay hike.
Unless the money to cover the raise planned for next year is found, the union and school board will resume negotiations next September.
"If they renegotiate, it means a strike in my mind," said Dizon, who also has been through six strikes.
To finance this year's pay increase, about 1,700 school administrators and other personnel are being laid off. The cuts include social workers, teacher aides, speech therapists and counselors.
Also threatened are magnet schools, whose innovative programs in mathematics, science and languages have long been considered the pride of a Chicago school system desegregation plan begun in 1980.
Unless the Illinois General Assembly provides more than $11 million for Chicago schools by Feb. 1, layoffs will be ordered for 990 teachers, including 860 at magnet schools, the school board said.
Board rules dictate that the last teachers hired are first to be fired. Administrators who have teaching certificates and whose jobs are cut can replace staffers with less seniority. "If the school board doesn't watch out, pretty soon all the good teachers will be gone," Jordan said.
This year's strike was marked by an outpouring of community cries for school reform. Mayor Harold Washington (D), severely criticized for not taking a more active role in ending the strike, has since invited parents to become active in the reform effort.
As the students hit the books this week, efforts to improve the crippled system continued. Several hundred parents formed a human chain in front of the State of Illinois building Thursday, chanting, "Quality education from the Board of Education."
Jody Baty, whose daughter attends kindergarten, said, "We have to stop this now. I don't want her to go through a series of strikes from now until she's a senior."
Victor Bernstein estimated that his son, Richard, a senior, has missed 50 school days due to strikes. "The children just learn that they never come first," he said.
Larry Nucci, head of the educational psychology department at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said such strikes "have got to be disruptive" for students. "The kids are going to start thinking, well, they don't care, so why should I care," he said.
The students said they are well aware of the stonewalling, name-calling and other disruptive tactics used by adults in past strikes. They said they also know about how school-board members' offices were remodeled recently at a cost of several million dollars.
The adults have acted "like little kids who hold their breath until they get what they want," said Dizon. "We're supposed to look up to them, but there's really nothing to look up to."
Staff writer Bill Peterson contributed to this report.