Fighting for our schools and neighborhoods

Parents, students and teachers came together from across Chicago for three days of marches and rallies on May 18-20 to send a message of protest against a plan to close as many 54 elementary schools and impose punitive action on a dozen and a half others.

The marches crisscrossed poor and predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods of the West and South Sides, where nearly all the schools slated for closure are located. The days of marching concluded with a downtown rally on Monday--organizers estimated as many as 7,000 people had participated over the three days. The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) board will make a final decision on the closures at its meeting this Wednesday.

George Manierre Elementary School is on the list of 54 schools. It differs from the others only in that it is located on the North Side, near the former Cabrini Green public housing complex that has been dismantled to make room for gentrification. Like other schools targeted for closure, Manierre has a student body that is almost entirely people of color. It has been assigned a low academic performance rating of Level 3, and CPS plans to send Manierre students to Jenner Academy, which is also Level 3--even though both are near several racially integrated schools with Level 1 academic standings. Another issue: Manierre and Jenner are located on opposite sides of a historic gang boundary--so parents, particularly at Manierre, fear for their children's safety if the schools are consolidated.

Sherise McDaniel is Manierre parent and a leader of the struggle to save the school from the CPS closures ax. She talked to Lauren Fleer and Marilena Marchetti about the fight for Manierre and the wider issues connected to it.

Chicago students gather for a vigil against the city's plan for school closings (Sarah-ji)Chicago students gather for a vigil against the city's plan for school closings (Sarah-ji)

WHAT WILL it be like for you and your family if Manierre closes?

IF MANIERRE closes, with this neighborhood being as upscale as it is, I really truly can't afford to live here, let alone find any other school for my child to attend, unless I'm paying out of pocket. We're surrounded by [selective enrollment] magnet schools. There are no other neighborhood schools that are willing to accept us, and we can't get into the magnet schools.

If Manierre closes, I'm going to have to find something to do with my son. That could mean finding a school near where I work and having to find extra money to be able to pay for gas to drive him who knows how far every day.

He honestly will not have a school to go to because Jenner is not an option. It's either his life or Jenner. At this point, his life is more important. My kids were chased home just yesterday. We have been left with no option.

WHY DOESN'T the CPS plan to merge Manierre students into Jenner Academy work?

THE NUMBER one reason is because Jenner is another Level 3 school. Test scores at Jenner are lower than at our children's current school. And they have to cross the gang line, which is Division Street. There's going to be fighting, overcrowding and chaos. How can kids learn in that environment?

It's ridiculous. I don't think they should be packed in like sardines. One teacher to 32 to 34 kids is extreme. We're talking about kids with all kinds of social and emotional problems, who come from families with financial problems. It's too much--too many problems to pack all those kids into one school like that.

We hear about kids getting shot all the time in the African American neighborhoods where there happen to be gang problems. Why add fuel to the fire? Why have eight year olds taking that risk?

If Mayor Rahm Emanuael spent more money and more focus on safety instead of closing schools, then we probably wouldn't have issues with sending our kids across gang lines. If he spent more money inside of the schools, on language classes, music or art, it would open minds. Black kids need those kinds of things, and we would all be better off.

THE BIG excuse for closing these schools is that they are underutilized--at least according to the criteria CPS has come up with. Do you think Manierre is underutilized?

MANIERRE IS very much being used. Granted, we don't have these extremely overcrowded classrooms like we did in the past. The classroom sizes are exactly right. It should be about 15 to 18 kids per classroom. Anything more than 18 to 24 students per classroom is just overcrowded.

Our classes may not be as overcrowded as they were in the beginning, when we had more African Americans living in the neighborhood. Of course, due to the housing crisis, a lot of people can't afford to live here. It has affected the community. But now the classroom sizes are comfortable, and that's helping our kids. If you look at our current test scores, we're meeting standards.

Minority classrooms shouldn't be overcrowded because these kids do need more one-on-one attention. We use just about every classroom at Manierre. If it isn't a teacher resource room for the special ed students, then it's used for dance or drama or music.

I feel like our kids should be able to learn those things. That's considered a well-rounded education. It makes them better human beings. It makes them better able to keep people like Rahm Emanuel from stomping all over them, just so they can make money for themselves and their friends.

BARBARA BYRD-BENNETT, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, insists that the plans for the 54 school closures have nothing to do with racism, even though most schools on the list are overwhelmingly Black or Latino. She says that as a person of color, she's insulted that people think this--and the Chicago Tribune printed an editorial to the same effect. What's your response?

RACISM HAS a lot to do with this. For her to be an African American woman with kids, and turn around and do something like this...She's a tool, she's useless, and she's a traitor to her race.

If she actually wanted to help the schools, why not add language classes? Why not find other things to do? Why not help parents who are struggling with education, drug abuse, mental illness? Why not help that way? Tearing the schools down, displacing kids, displacing families--I don't see how that's helping. She really upsets me.

MANIERRE stands where a major concentration of public housing once did, but almost all of that has been demolished and replaced with "mixed-income housing"--which is, in reality, very expensive and disproportionately white-owned and -occupied. Can you talk about the transformation of the neighborhood in recent years?

WITH THIS new so-called "mixed-income housing," what I really find happening is that they make available more market-rent apartments so that our white counterparts move in and pay full market rent. Just under that, they have "affordable" housing, where you have to make $32,000 a year to qualify to even apply to get in.

And then there's Section 8, and those units are very few now. To get one of those, you have to previously been living in one of the high-rise projects that were demolished--either Cabrini Green, Robert Taylor, Rockwell Gardens or Stateway Gardens. If you weren't in there and weren't one of the select few families, then you're not getting in. That leaves us out in the cold. You're going to have to go somewhere. And they have made this city unaffordable to common people.

I've heard that you need $60,000 a year to live comfortably in the City of Chicago. If you don't make $60,000, you're going to be sacrificing a lot--sacrificing medical care, decent food and everything else just to be able to afford your rent. The average person in the city doesn't make $60,000.

They made this city unaffordable, and the low-income or affordable housing that is still here should be left alone. I don't feel like it's right that just because they have a lot of money, they get to kick you out of your neighborhood. They should make housing affordable for everyone.

DOES THE alderman in your ward, Walter Burnett, support the parents and community members fighting to keep Manierre open?

ALDERMAN BURNETT sold us up the river. He wouldn't give the parents organizing to save Manierre a letter of support. He came out to one hearing, and we haven't seen or heard of him since. We tried to call his office, we tried to locate him, and he's nowhere to be found.

We actually went to the City Council meeting on May 8 and a Chicago Teachers Union organizer who was with us told Alderman Burnett that a group from Manierre school was here. Do you know what he said? He said: "Why did you bring them here? What are they doing here?" That's how much he cares.

In the past, I did vote for him. He held back-to-school picnics and did all types of things. But the minute we really, truly needed his help, he walked away and pretended like we didn't exist. He's another one of the mayor's tools. Most alderman are going to do whatever Rahm says when it involves money.

Honestly, I'm quite offended by a lot of our Black leaders here. To me, they are selling us out for a buck. They don't care.

Too many people are allowed to come into minority neighborhoods and just use us for a quick buck. They don't put anything back into the community, and they don't care about the people there. They just want to come in, open up and experiment with their grandiose deals and projects. And then, when they feel like they're not making the money anymore, they collect up their things and pull out, leaving big gaps and destruction in the neighborhood.

In Old Town, where Manierre is, they want to push us out and take the land for themselves. Whites are the ones buying up and moving into these new developments. Alderman Burnett is trying to cater to their needs. He stands to gain something from letting all these new developments open up in the area. If our Black leaders can't honestly stand up for what's in our best interests, then they don't need to be here. We need to get rid of them.

THE DECISION about which schools will close is in the hands of the CPS board, which is appointed by the mayor and accountable directly to him--so it's no surprise that there are plenty of millionaires on there. Meanwhile, 86 percent of CPS students come from low-income families. What do you think that tells us about how democracy works?

I WOULD love to have an elected school board because then we can elect educators who know about education, and not businessmen who only care about money. Money is power, and when there's money involved and someone stands to gain something, there's nothing they will stop at to try to make the money--even if it means that a ton of poor people are going to have to squeeze into some small building.

They don't care. They could care less about the gangs, they could care less about the buildings being overcrowded, they could care less whether kids with special needs get extra attention. Pack them into the sardine can with the rest of them.

And at the same time, their children go to these great schools. Barbara Byrd-Bennet said in an interview that she wants for CPS kids the same things she has for her grandchildren. Well, tell Byrd-Bennett that in August of 2013, I want her to have for her grandkids the same thing I have for my kids--and right now, that's looking like a seat over there at Jenner Academy. Tell her come right on over. Have them walk to school across the Seward Park field. They can walk together with my son.

The mayor's kids don't go to public school--they go to the University of Chicago Lab School. The Alderman either send their kids to private school or get them good seats at the better public schools, the magnets. What if I took all the Manierre kids over to Lab School, and our kids could sit right next to the Emanuel's children? By CPS's standards, the school the mayor's kids go to would be considered underutilized--and subject to closure.

YOU SAID that you were thrown into this struggle and into activism when you found out your son's school was going to be closed. Do you have any political heroes or anything in particular you look to for inspiration in this struggle?

I READ this book a while back that was Winnie Mandela's autobiography. She talked about how she was sent into exile, and a man who was in exile with her told her about when the colonizers came to South Africa: "They had the book, and we had the land. Now they have all the land, and all we have is the book."

I think about that now that the school closures are happening. Here we are again--they're trying to do it again. We have a nice school in a good area, and they want to try to offer us crap to get us out of the neighborhood so they can take it, and we can be stuck somewhere else. The powers that be are trying to do it again. We have to stop them.

WHAT DO you think it will take to stop them?

THESE DAYS, the crooks and the criminals in charge don't scare that easily. Drastic times call for drastic measures. It's going to take a lot of people who are outraged and tired of living in the same situation, tired of being pushed around, used and abused, and tired of being treated like guinea pigs. All those people need to stand up, holler out and educate ourselves.

It's going to take a lot of people of all colors, because now, it's turning into your socioeconomic status. Whether you're white, Black, Latino or whatever, if you're poor, they're going to walk all over you, and you're not going to have a say in your future--unless you get up there and make people aware. People have to join together to stand up, shout, climb on top of buildings and do whatever it takes to tell Rahm Emanuel: You leave my kids alone!

ON WEDNESDAY, either the board will vote for Manierre to be closed, or it will remain open for the coming year. What happens next based on those two scenarios?

IF THEY vote to keep our school open, we need to do some work inside the school to keep this from ever happening again. We've got to find ways to bring up the test scores so we can secure our future--so these people can't use the same tricks in a few years to shut us down.

But the battle will continue. Even if they keep our school open, they're going to close down others. As an African American, I'm outraged by it all. Don't think just because you saved my school that I'm going to be quiet. You shouldn't be allowed to do this to anyone.

If they close Manierre down, I hope I can afford to send my son to a private school. He won't be going to the charter schools, and I will work to discourage all the other parents from sending their kids to the charters. The fight will continue. I'm going to find any way I can to hurt Rahm in his pocket and keep this struggle going. I'm going to keep working on ways to fight the system and not allowing them to make money off of our kids. It's unfair.