Parents occupy Chicago school

September 21, 2010

Elizabeth Lalasz reports from Chicago on a struggle by parents and the community at an elementary school in the mostly immigrant neighborhood of Pilsen.

DOZENS OF parents, children and community supporters are occupying a field house at the Whittier Dual Language School in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood to stop it from being demolished. The occupation started on September 15 and has continued for nearly a week despite several attempts by Chicago police to break up the protest.

The parents want the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system and its CEO Ron Huberman to stop plans to demolish the field house and build a soccer field--and instead agree to let parents renovate the building so it can become a library (there is no library at Whittier currently) and meeting center.

As one mother, whose children have attended Whittier for the past eight years, said: "This is not private property. This is our property--we pay taxes, we pay for this. It's not about what they want to do with it--it's about what we want to do with it. Imagine our kids not having a library."

The sit-in came after a protest staged by the Whittier Parents Committee, first formed in 2003, at an appearance by Mayor Richard Daley and Alderman Danny Solis, who represents Pilsen, at the nearby Benito Juarez High School. As Lisa Angonese, a new parent at Whittier, said:

Pilsen parents and community members rally outside the field house they're fighting to save
Pilsen parents and community members rally outside the field house they're fighting to save

We went to the high school to talk to Daley and Solis, since Huberman has not responded to our petition with over 1,000 signatures on it for a library. We wanted them to listen us. They saw our signs, walked right past us and drove away.

We got the cold shoulder from the mayor and the alderman. It was as if we weren't even there. I think they were afraid. Then we decided to sit in. We are working together as a community--this is what I want my children to see."

CPS says it will spend $354,000 to demolish the field house building. Whittier parents hired their own engineer, who estimated that the building could be salvaged for a fraction of that cost. According to Gema Gaete, an activist and Pilsen resident, the call from parents is to "repolish, not demolish."

Chicago Police have threatened and intimidated the parents, including telling them they will be charge with "abandonment" if they don't pick up their children. Many undocumented parents had to leave the occupation for fear of retaliation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

CPS also sent a locksmith to change the locks on the field house when the parents and students were inside, and put up a sign in English and Spanish stating the building was unsafe to occupy. Protesters removed the sign.

On September 17, officers came to the building and threatened to arrest the occupiers. They left quickly when more than 100 students, parents and community members jumped the school fence, going past police to join the action.

This confrontation won a promise from Huberman that he would meet with the parents. But the parents have heard this before. "He's said he would meet, and then he sends someone else," said one Whittier mother. "We want to talk to him face to face. We all deserve equal opportunity. No more lies--they need to hear us."

THE WHITTIER occupation is a struggle of a predominantly working class immigrant community against cuts being instituted by the Chicago School Board and City Hall. But there are larger issues that have echoes across Chicago and nationally.

The Whittier Parents Committee has been organizing for years for school expansion, to be funded by Chicago's Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program--a complicated system under which a portion of property tax revenues in specified districts is collected in special accounts, under Mayor Daley's control, supposedly to be used for development projects that might not otherwise be carried out.

The size of Daley's TIF coffers is estimated at $1 billion, but how those funds get used is often hidden--leading critics to suspect that the money gets diverted to wealthier sections of the city, for projects the mayor approves of.

The years of pressure paid off when nearly $1.5 million in TIF funds were earmarked for renovation at Whittier. But cynically, CPS set aside nearly a quarter of this money for the destruction of the field house, which has served Pilsen for years as a gathering place for community projects.

Parents say they want to be part of the decision-making process. "We want this school to be for us, for the community," said one mother. "In order to better educate the children, we need to educate the parents, too. Many of them are first-generation immigrants to the U.S. When they come to the meetings and computer classes in the field house, their confidence is built, and they become stronger voices in this school. We want that and need that in our parents."

Parents were initially given a room in the school for meetings, but it was the size of a closet--it held only about 10 people at a time. Saving the field house is about providing a vital resource in this community.

The proposal to preserve the field house as a community resource and library for the school is just the beginning of the parents' vision for their school. Their detailed expansion plan is worked out in architectural drawings covering the existing school, the field house and a nearly vacant police building nearby.

But parental involvement and expansion of services are in complete opposition to the grim vision for education in Chicago that Huberman and CPS are attempting to impose--with an emphasis on privatization and charter schools, school closures and turnarounds, and firings of experienced teachers.

The fight over the this little field house is an important one in the larger struggle around educational rights, community self-determination and control over public land and institutions.

THE OUTPOURING of solidarity for the occupiers has been overwhelming. In the first week, hundreds of people brought food and money, helped with fixing up the building, and rallied in support of the Whittier parents.

Members of the Caucus for Rank and File Educators (CORE) in the Chicago Teachers Union, Teachers for Social Justice, the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign (MDC), the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, ChicagoOtra, the International Socialist Organization and many others have all signed onto a statement of support and are circulating an online petition.

It will be important to connect the Whittier parents' determination to other struggles underway in the Chicago schools and on other issues around the city.

As CORE members wrote in signing the petition opposing demolition of the field house: "Just as CPS has shown its eagerness to discard experienced teachers and all the institutional history and knowledge they represent, CPS is choosing to throw away this important community resource. Huberman, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!"

The Whittier occupation gives us a glimpse of the kind of fight that can galvanize a struggle for our schools, with a different vision of what public education should look like. With Daley recently stating he wouldn't run for re-election, space is opening for more battles to take place for the future in the city.

"If we didn't do anything, they would close this place," said Lisa Angonese. "So we want to make this fight harder and stronger. As long as it takes and whatever it takes, we will makes this a viable place--a safe haven for the community. This is not for us, but for our children and their future."

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