Taking our kids’ futures away

April 22, 2013

Rigo Gogol reports from Chicago on how parents, teachers and students organized at one Southwest Side school to show the effects of the city's closure plans.

PADEREWSKI ELEMENTARY on Chicago's Southwest Side is on the final list of schools slated for closure at the end of this school year.

Like the majority of the schools on the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) closure list, it's made up of low-income students--some 98 percent--and it's the center of stability in a community hit by poverty, unemployment and violence.

Plus, like the other schools on CPS's list, it makes absolutely no sense to close it down.

Paderewski's parents, students and teachers know this, and they're not going down without a fight. On March 10, they came together for a march through the neighborhood to protest the school's closure.

"They [CPS] feel like we are under-achieving and are trying to find any reason to close us down instead of wanting to fix it. They look at the neighborhood and don't want to fix it," explained a third-grade teacher. "This is definitely racist. Why do North Side schools get instructional materials and buildings with auditoriums and libraries, and we don't? We have no libraries or iPads--nothing for enriching or to fix reading levels."

Paderewski teachers, parents and students march outside the school students will attend if Paderewski closes
Paderewski teachers, parents and students march outside the school students will attend if Paderewski closes

So perhaps the solution is to build a library at Paderewski and not close it down.

At the protest, 40 students (most under the age of 12), parents and teachers marched from Paderewski to Cardenas Elementary about half a mile away. The reason, they said, was to show what it will be like for the children and parents to walk to the school that the kids are supposed to go to after Paderewski Elementary is closed.

On the path to Cardenas, the children, parents and teachers chanted, "We need teachers, we need books, we need the money that Rahm took," "Save our schools," "Don't close our schools" and the crowd's favorite, "Education is a right, not just for the rich and white." Some children who had gone home after school came out on their stoops to cheer and dance to the beat of the chanting as the protest passed by.

THE MARCH to and from Cardenas showed a neighborhood that has been completely abandoned by politicians who claim to be saving our children's futures. Between some beautiful home gardens were once-occupied corners with empty lots. Along Central Park Avenue, and later Cermak Avenue, we passed abandoned buildings and corner stores with bulletproof glass.

Also very important to parents and teachers, we saw the fire-breathing dragon that is rush-hour traffic on major Chicago streets like Ogden, Pulaski, Lawndale and Cermak, which makes crossing the street challenging even for adults.

What wasn't immediately obvious, but is definitely on the minds of parents, is the fact that their children will have to take a much longer walk through an area that had more than its share of the 500 murders that happened in Chicago in 2012.

As the march returned to the Paderewski Elementary, Darlene, a mother of four students, spoke to the crowd. Her voice was full of anger and sadness, but more importantly determination. "Excuse me if I break down," she said, "but please come back tomorrow. We need to keep fighting. We need our schools open. To close schools is the worst thing Rahm can do to our kids. They are taking our kids' futures away."

She went on to explain that the string of hearings CPS set up to get community "input" on whether they should keep the schools open were of no use to the community. "They gave us two minutes to make our case, and we had to go sign up for two more minutes if we needed more time. That is just plain disrespectful," she said. "We need to shut 125 Clark [CPS headquarters] down. We are fighters. We aren't going to take this lying down."

The meetings that CPS organized throughout the city in the lead-up to its closure announcement clearly illustrated city officials' contempt and carelessness for children and their educations. Panels of CPS officials sat and spaced out as parents make the case for their children's future. Some parents and community members decided to boycott the last round of hearings on the final list of school closings.

The voices that need to be heard aren't those of CPS officials, but of those who were chanting at the march. They are aware of what the problems are in the schools, how their children can learn best, and what needs to be done to make a better school.

Closing public schools has failed in Washington, D.C., Detroit and New Orleans. CPS hasn't learned that lesson. But the Chicago Teachers Union, parents and students are in the best position to teach them, through direct action and protest, that closing down schools isn't an option for making schools better.

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