Education isn't a business

Trish Kahle reports on how parents, students and teachers stood together at a hearing on Chicago's West Side to protest planned school closures.

A Chicago Public Schools parent speaks out against closures at a packed hearing in Pilsen (Sarah-ji Fotógrafa)A Chicago Public Schools parent speaks out against closures at a packed hearing in Pilsen (Sarah-ji Fotógrafa)

MORE THAN 1,000 teachers, parents, students and community supporters crowded into an auditorium on Chicago's Southwest Side February 6 to stand up against Mayor Rahm Emanuel's assault on public education. This was one of several meetings organized by the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system to discuss plans to close as many as 100 schools--almost all in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Parents and teachers who had been locked out of the room "to ensure fire safety" pounded on the doors, screaming "Let us in!" as Office of Local School Council Relations Director Willy Montes de Oca assured the angry crowd that everyone's voice would be heard.

"How could you think this would be big enough?" demanded parent Alexis Gonzales. "How many parents did you think would show up? Five? A hundred? Five hundred? These are our kids! These are our schools!"

Montes de Oca tried to silence her, but she continued, defiant, "You're keeping the parents our of the last meeting before you decide to close our schools. When are you going to stop closing our schools to balance your budget?"

For a short time, it wasn't clear that the meeting would ever even get started. CPS officials couldn't get their audiovisual equipment to work. Parents yelled at them, "How can you run our schools? You can't even run a meeting!"

People shouted for those in the hall who had been diverted to an overflow room on the second floor to be let into the main room. CPS refused, once again citing the fire code. In the crowd, people responded, "You say the people in the hall are a fire hazard? The police blocking the halls with their bicycles are a fire hazard!" and "You think this room is overcrowded? You should try going into one of our kids' classrooms."

Finally, CPS officials were able to begin the meeting. Instead of starting with long speeches from proponents of school closures, a tactic that only backfired on them at a hearing the previous week, they called up representatives from the schools to make the case for why their particular school shouldn't be closed.

They hoped that this tactic would divide people at the meeting into supporting the closure of other schools, but it failed. Instead, it made the community united and ready to do whatever it takes to keep every single school open and prevent further incursion of charters.

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IT'S IMPORTANT to emphasize the anti-charter school sentiment of the evening, since politicians love to spread the lie that Latino communities like Pilsen and Little Village, where the meeting was held, are the ones pushing for charters.

The sham CPS forums on school closings show that nothing could be further from the truth. People know that Rahm Emanuel and his cronies are stealing money from our public schools and funneling them into for-profit charters.

Marta Castro, president of the Pickard Local School Council, posed a rhetorical question to the CPS representatives. "Are our schools being targeted for closure in order to open more charters? Our schools must stay open. Every single one of them."

Deborah Wilicki, a teacher at Kanoon Elementary School, noted that this year's closings are part of a longer process of stripping away public education rights. "We're not stupid!" she said. "We know what you're doing. The fact that we have to come here and beg for what already belongs to us is a travesty."

Alexia Gonzales, whose children attend Pickard Elementary School, said, "I'm not here for one school. I'm here for Pilsen. There is money. Where is my tax money? Going to charter schools? What we need is arts and music. We need basic physical things, like a roof. Respect my teachers. Let them teach! Support our schools, don't break them!"

Another parent spoke, to thunderous applause, about the hardship that charter schools would place on working-class families:

I don't make enough to pay my rent, buy food for my kids, and pay charter school fees and buy uniforms. Who are you to come in and close [our schools]? You should be working with us to make them better. Education should be equal for all the children!

Martha Ramirez, a CPS parent and member of the LSC at Jungman Elementary, summed up the role of charter schools best:

Have you taken into consideration the physical and emotional well-being of our kids when making your closing list? I don't think so. We don't want charters. They aren't better than our schools. Education is a right, not a business.

Despite the fact that the hearing took place in a majority Latino neighborhood, and despite promises to have translation into English or Spanish throughout the meeting, CPS quickly abandoned their promise, leaving speakers working together to provide translation where they could before CPS cut the mic.

This only underscored how little CPS cares about providing bilingual education--both to ensure English language learners have access to high quality education and to provide an enriching, diverse learning environment for all students. Schools that offer bilingual education or have a high number of teachers with bilingual certifications are disproportionately considered "underutilized."

A teacher from Jungman Elementary cut through the CPS lies. "Jungman has 271 students with a desire to learn. Maybe, to you, 271 seems like a small number. To us, it's the right number."

CPS could barely maintain the facade of control at the meeting. When they tried to cut the mic after a speaker's two minutes had run out, the crowd would quiet down so the speaker could scream and still be heard, but when they brought in local politicians, included hated Alderman Danny Solis, the crowd booed and heckled so they could barely be heard.

When a parent demanded to know which of the CPS representatives had children who went to public schools, they all stared down at the papers in front of them, because, of course, their children go to private schools, like the University of Chicago Lab School, where the students enjoy arts, music, physical education, small class sizes and minimal standardized testing.

Students spoke angrily and tearfully about the schools and teachers they love. "We may be a poor school," one student from Paderewski Elementary said, "but we're a great school. We deserve a chance. We're trying to get our grades up, but you're shutting us down."

A student from the Madero Middle School broke into tears as he described how closing his school would affect him. "If you close down my school and force me into another school, I'm going to give up. I'm going to give up on myself and then I'll drop out."

One of his friends embraced him as he handed the microphone back to Montes de Oca, who seemed to think the whole meeting was a joke and smirked as the students showed their anguish over the breaking-up of the schools they consider second homes. A mother comforting her child screamed in rage at the CPS reps, "We haven't failed our children! You have!"

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CRITICALLY, HOWEVER, the meeting was not only a show of anger. It was a show of organization and power. It was a clear challenge to CPS: try to close our schools, and we will fight.

The Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods have a long history of education struggle to draw on, including parent hunger strikes to win the opening of the Lawndale Campus, which is home to Social Justice High School and three other high schools.

In 2010, parents successfully occupied Whittier Elementary School to prevent its closure. And obviously, the struggle of the Chicago Teachers, culminating in the victorious September strike has provided an important lesson about how to fight. Already, the Pilsen and Little Village communities have begun to draw on these lessons and traditions to stop the school closings this year.

One of the parents from Paderewski drew on the legacy of civil rights struggle:

Rosa Parks fought to keep from going to the back of the bus. Women fought for the right to vote. Martin Luther King fought for civil rights. Civil rights are things that everyone has no matter the circumstances. Our kids have a right not to have their schools closed! When will CPS stop putting dollar signs before our children's education?

Pilsen and Little Village--and all of Chicago--know that we can't rely on CPS to make decisions about education that puts kids first. There is absolutely no trust of the board. "How can we trust CPS's recommendations?" one teacher asked. "They tell us our school should have 750 students, but the building is crowded with 616, and it was never meant for more than 700 students. Where are we going to put 750?"

One student summed it up, "Trust is gained by making the right choices for the community, and you're not making the right choices!"

So how can we stop the school closings? The teachers led the way. Sarah Chambers, a teacher at Saucedo Elementary School, rallied the community to the coming fight:

Where is the board? Where is [CPS CEO] Barbara Byrd-Bennett? Where is [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel? They're the ones making the decisions, so if they're not here to hear what we have to say, what does that say about how much they're listening to us? They aren't asking if closing schools is a valid option. They're asking us which schools they should close. They're asking us to plan our own funeral. Are we going to let them do it?"

"NO!" erupted the entire room.

She continued, "Let's take a vote, then, to test how much they are listening. Stand up if you're against these destructive school closings." Everyone in the room leapt to their feet. "Are you willing to march?" she asked. "To sit in? To be arrested? Because that's what it's going to take!" The room exploded in applause and a chant of "Save our schools!"

Despite all their attempts to divide us, physically and politically, Pilsen and Little Village showed that we are one united community, organized and ready to fight.

Noreen McNulty and Ryne Poelker contributed to this article.