Whittier parents close to victory

October 27, 2010

Mario Cardenas reports on the latest developments in a parents' occupation at an elementary school in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.

AFTER MORE than a month of occupying a field house at Whittier Elementary School, a group of mothers in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood believe that they are close to winning their demands.

On October 20, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Ron Huberman met with the parents and said that the field house--known to the community as "La Casita" (Little House)--would not be demolished, that a library would be built in the main building of the school, and that the field house would be leased as a community center for $1 a year. The school board is supposed to decide on whether to approve the agreement on October 27.

The mothers--who have been living in the field house since September 15, winning the support of the community as they stood up to attempts to evict them and shut off the heat--say that they aren't leaving until they are certain their demands will be met.

Their determination isn't surprising considering the tremendous struggle they have waged so far.

The occupation was a last resort for parents, who had tried for weeks before the occupation to meet with Huberman and local Alderman Danny Solis about the planned demolition. The parents wanted the building turned into a much-needed school library and parents' center.

Parents, community members and supporters take their protest of the planned demolition of La Casita downtown
Parents, community members and supporters take their protest of the planned demolition of La Casita downtown

The parents found out the city considered the building unsafe and not worth renovating. They also learned that the lot where the field house and a playground are currently located was going to be transformed into a "green space." It's rumored that the planned "green space" was really a soccer field for a nearby Catholic high school.

The Whittier parents hired an engineering firm to assess the building and were told that it needed minor repairs and a new roof. "They had a budget to demolish the field house, so we simply demanded that they use that money to fix it," said Mirna Barcenas, a mother of a Whittier student and participant in the occupation.

With no other option, the mothers of Whittier elementary decided to force the issue the only way they could—and staged a sit-in at La Casita. In no time, a self-organized library was operating out of La Casita, with the help of more than 1,000 donated books from the community and local organizations.

A COMMUNITY has been forged around collective struggle and direct action. "It is planned that there will be different workshops regularly at La Casita, like yoga, sowing, language classes," said Bertha Chacon, one of the mothers at La Casita.

When asked what the most important lesson of their struggle was, Bertha responded, "I found out about where the funds for public education come from. I knew it was taxpayer money, but not which taxpayer money." She's referring to the controversial public funding system know as Tax Increment Financing, or TIFs, which for years have been used to fund private and civic projects for the city's elite instead of funding improvements in underdeveloped areas.

Victoria Cervantes, another Whittier parent and activist, added, "What I have learned is the level of corruption among politicians...there is so much trash sitting in City Hall."

A month after the sit-in began, the parents still had not heard from CPS, so they decided to raise their public profile. As Cervantes explained, "We went to Solis, then a week later to Huberman, and he also shut his doors. So right then, we decided to march to City Hall and ask for [Mayor Richard] Daley. That's when we forced the issue."

A week later, they were called in for a meeting at CPS headquarters to arrange the agreement.

This is a huge victory for working-class parents whose children rely on public education. They took on a public school system whose leaders are intent on privatization and pushing charter schools—and they are on the verge of winning.

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