Uniting to fight school closures in Chicago

Caitlin Buckley reports on the spreading struggle against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to close down schools, fire teachers and impose corporate "reform."

Parents and supporters speak to the press outside the Piccolo elementary school in Chicago (Lara Lindh | SW)Parents and supporters speak to the press outside the Piccolo elementary school in Chicago (Lara Lindh | SW)

CHICAGO'S BOARD of Education will take a final vote February 22 on whether to close seven public schools and "turn around" 10 others.

The struggle to save these schools escalated in the week leading up to the potentially devastating vote, with a parent-led occupation of Brian Piccolo Specialty School February 17 and a 500-strong march to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's house on February 20.

The occupation of Piccolo--located on the city's poor West Side, with a student body that is over 60 percent Black and 35 percent Latino--kicked off on Friday night, February 17, with an energetic press conference outside the school. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)--locked in tough contract negotiations with the Chicago Public Schools--quickly issued a statement of support for the Piccolo action.

In front of a backdrop of tents and homemade banners, students gave rousing speeches about why they oppose the board's plan to turn their school around, and parents announced their plans to stay the night. The unity of African American and Latino parents in carrying out the occupation was lost on no one.

Many speakers voiced frustration at being ignored by the Board of Education, which is appointed by Emanuel. "They need to come to us," said Latoya Wall, an alumna of the school and mother of two current Piccolo students. "This is our neighborhood, our community. We live here, we suffer, we walk up and down this block every day. I've been living here since '92, and I refuse for AUSL [Academy for Urban School Leadership] to come in and turn our school around."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

PICCOLO IS one of the 10 schools slated for turnaround. If the February 22 vote goes as planned, all of the staff and teachers in the school will be fired and forced to reapply for their jobs, and management of the school will be transferred to AUSL, an independent nonprofit staffed by people with personal connections to the Board of Education and the mayor.

Several students from Orr High School, which was handed to AUSL in 2008, came to speak out against the record of AUSL for uprooting communities and failing to maintain consistency. "AUSL makes millions off us, and they abandon us," said Malakhi, an Orr student.

The closures and turnarounds have devastating impacts on communities, as students are forced to commute to unfamiliar schools further away, and the teachers and staff that have developed relationships with the communities are pushed out.

"These are teachers and staff they grew up with," said Latrice Watkins, a Piccolo parent and head of the Local Schools Council. "They have relationships with the cafeteria staff and the custodians and the teachers. We don't want them replaced with people right out of college who aren't connected to the community."

Amid chants of "Occupy Piccolo," a group of 12 to 15 parents and students led supporters into the school. As word spread about the occupation, more and more people arrived on site. By 8:30 p.m., when the school alarm was set to go off, the crowd outside the school had swelled to over a hundred people, and a core group of 15 parents and community allies occupied a classroom. When the cops arrived, the supporters had blocked the front entrance of the school by organizing themselves into a human chain.

Eventually, a couple of police officers made their way into the building through a side entrance, and began negotiations with the parents inside. By 3:30 p.m. the following day, after hours of negotiations, parents and school officials came to an agreement: the parents were promised a meeting with the Board of Education, and they ended the occupation.

That it took an occupation of a school to get a meeting with the Board of Education is proof that the so-called legitimate democratic channels are bankrupt. Parents had been trying for months to get Chicago Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to visit their school.

They'd shown up to speak at board meetings and were ignored. They organized a community discussion and vote about the proposed school turnarounds at Piccolo and Casals elementary schools in January, and over 90 percent of the 300 parents voted against the turnarounds. They also mobilized for school hearings and stood up against rent-a-protesters--people who were paid by politically connected ministers to attend hearings and pose as concerned community members who wanted schools shut down or turned around.

What's more, parents with the West Humboldt Park Community Action Council worked for over a year on their own proposal for how to improve their schools, and the board has still not taken these recommendations into consideration.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THIS YEAR'S proposal to shut down and turn around public schools is nothing new. For over a decade, the city has targeted schools on Chicago's South and West Sides, in poor neighborhoods that are predominantly African American and Latino. And for years, these proposals have been wildly unpopular in these communities.

However, this year, in the context of the broader attacks on public education, and with the CTU entering a fight over a fair contract, the parents who are leading the fight against the school closures have found overwhelming support from their communities and the union.

These links between the CTU and community organizations on the basis of a shared struggle will be a key element in the union's looming showdown with Emanuel and schools chief Brizard. The mayor and the school chief are demanding a 90-minute increase to the school day without increasing the pay of teachers, who were already denied their scheduled 4 percent raise this year.

The CTU--which recently issued a major report calling for greater funding for schools and genuine progressive school reform--was one of many groups to mobilize its members for the February 20 rally to save schools. The protest brought out 500 parents, teachers, students and community members in solidarity.

"I came out today because of my passion as a parent, not just as a teacher," said Katy, a CTU member. "The parental part of me is screaming out about the unfairness. My child goes to a mostly white school in a district that is 9 percent white. And she has all the resources, whereas my other children, my students, have nothing. It really took being a parent to slam it home for me."

Despite the overwhelming shows in support of keeping these schools open, it is likely that the Board of Education will vote unanimously February 22 to move forward with the mayor's plan to shut down and turn around the 17 schools.

Nevertheless, the steps that the movement to save our schools has taken over the last months has certainly made an impact. The actions over the past weeks and months have exposed the board's agenda, as parents and students have begun to resist being used as pawns in the attacks on education and on public sector workers.

With public education still in the crosshairs, it is clear that this struggle will not stop Wednesday. As Latrice Watkins put it, "We are not stepping down. This is our fight."