Fighting for justice at Social Justice High

September 6, 2012

Crystal Stella Becerril and Elizabeth Schulte report on a victory at Social Justice High School--and what it means for the fight as a teachers' strike looms in Chicago.

TEACHERS, STUDENTS and parents at Social Justice High School (SoJo) in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood are showing what it will take to push back the assault on public education--after their protests forced administrators to hire back two teachers on August 31 whose jobs had been eliminated the week before.

"As I was escorted by security to the office, the principal gave me a letter," Katie Hogan, a 12-year CPS teacher who helped found SoJo, explained to a crowded August 29 solidarity meeting for Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members who are poised to strike as early as September 10. "It was only one paragraph long. She said, 'Your position has been closed for economic reasons.'"

Hogan said she and Angela Sangha made up two-thirds of the English Department--and the third teacher is on maternity duty. Yet they were both kicked out--despite the department turning out the best scores in the school's history last year.

The struggle at Social Justice High School symbolizes the intensifying battle between the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Board of Education and the teachers--members of the CTU, who are fighting for a just contract for themselves and for a vision of CPS that gives children "the schools they deserve," in the union's words.

Students protest outside Social Justice High School in Chicago's Little Village-Lawndale neighborhood
Students protest outside Social Justice High School in Chicago's Little Village-Lawndale neighborhood (Crystal Stella Becerril)

The fact that school officials thought that the SoJo teachers--founders of a school that the city was forced to form after a 19-day hunger strike by parents and activists in 2001, and whose motto is "Born out of struggle, the struggle continues"--would go down without a fight is proof of how ruthless and arrogant they've become.

But on the other hand, teachers and students at the school have shown a spirit of resistance that inspires hope for the broader struggle of the CTU for a better future for our schools.

ON AUGUST 31, students at SoJo staged a strike in response to the elimination of the teachers' positions. This was the latest protest against attacks unleashed on the school in the preceding weeks.

When students began school on August 13--SoJo is one of the several hundred schools in the system on a year-round schedule--students found that their well-liked principal, chosen by the Local School Council (LSC), had been replaced with one imposed by CPS.

The new interim principal immediately went on the offensive, cutting three Advanced Placement (AP) classes--despite the fact that the school's AP scores had improved--and replacing them with remedial classes, firing two attendance clerks, and reassigning teachers to classes and subjects with no preparation.

What you can do

For updates on the Chicago teachers' strike throughout the day, go to the Facebook page.

Other important sources of information include the Chicago Teachers Union website and the CTU Twitter feed. Also check out the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign Facebook page.

The teachers need your financial support--please consider making a donation to the CTU Solidarity Fund.

If you are in Chicago, picketing will take place at schools in the morning, starting at 6:30 a.m. On Tuesday, the union is calling for a mass rally downtown at Daley Plaza, across from City Hall, at 2:30 p.m.

In response, on August 15, students organized a sit-in in front of their lockers in the school hallway. After the protest, CPS agreed to meet with the students and promised to reinstate the AP classes. When only one AP class was reinstated, parents demanded another meeting with CPS. A day before the meeting, parents were informed that they would be denied access to the meeting. But parents, students, teachers and community members showed up anyway, demanded to be let in, quickly filled the room and took it over.

At the August 31 protest, some 300 students along with parents and community members marched, chanting, "Where is the justice in Social Justice?" and "We want teachers, we want books, we want the money that Rahm took!"

Halfway through the march, the students occupied a small plaza, where they unfurled large banners that proudly displayed their schools' motto. Once the square was fully occupied, SoJo senior Rocio Meza took over the megaphone and proceeded to read off the students' demands to the board:

-- Rewind to August 6: Reinstate SoJo's principal, rehire all fired staff and reinstate all scheduled programs and classes.

Approve and sign contracts for Kathy Farr, the fired principal of SoJo, and the principal at World Language High School [another high school in the Lawndale/Little Village high school campus where SoJo is located].

Replace the board-appointed Advisory Local School Council with a fully empowered community-elected LSC.

No retaliation against any student, staff or parent.

The board should issue an apology to the community.

After these demands were read out in Spanish, students marched back to SoJo, where Yahtzeni, a class of 2011 alum and community organizer known as "Mama SoJo," told students, "Indeed, our struggle continues, but remember that the students united can never be defeated."

The megaphone was then opened up for students, parents or community members to speak. Gema, one of the original members of the hunger strike that helped found SoJo, thanked and congratulated the students for their courage in standing up in the face of injustice and adversity. She ended by repeating the school's motto and the day's most prevalent chant: "We were born out of struggle, and the struggle continues!"

Monica, a community member and CPS parent of an elementary school student, said she came out to support the students after receiving a flyer. "If they can target this school, they can target any of them," she said. "I'm scared they're going to turn Social Justice into a charter school."

Students marched along 31st Street, holding up their signs and chanting "¡La Comunidad Unida, Jamas Sera Vencida!" ("The community united will never be defeated"). Gema explained what this struggle meant for her: "This is a revitalization of the original struggle that founded SoJo. Then, we were fighting for a school in our community. Now, we are fighting for quality education, dignity and to have a voice in the decision-making process."

Handing out bottles of cold water to students and supporters was Celina, Yahtzeni's mother, who said, "Everything should be restored to the way it was on August 6. We want Principal Velasquez fired, and we want the original teachers and curriculum restored."

Asked what she thought about the CTU contract fight with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS, she said, "Rahm wants to keep our schools' money and keep us impoverished. I stand with the Chicago teachers, and if there's a strike, I will stand in solidarity until the end."

CPS's BOLD attack on SoJo is typical of the assault on teachers and schools across Chicago, as Emanuel and CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard set out to restructure the entire system. In their vision of "public" education, there's no room for schools like SoJo that serve low-income African American and Latino students, and that highlight a vision of democracy and community control.

Over the last few years, small schools like SoJo have been on the CPS chopping block. In 2008, for example, CPS dismantled small schools inside Orr High School and replaced them with one big turnaround school run by the Academy of Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit with a lot of political connections.

And there's no room for teachers and union activists like Hogan and Angela Sangha in CPS's plan. Throughout the system, CPS is going after teachers and any of their protections in the form of job security, seniority and wages. As Hogan pointed out:

We are not alone. We are not a story that's singular to Social Justice. As soon as I told people about my dismissal, I started hearing from people all around Chicago about how their position had been closed or redefined or they now needed triple-certification to teach, and there was one thing that rang--these people were all really strong union activists...

If we didn't have a union, you wouldn't be hearing our story, because the only reason we are all here is because the Chicago Teachers Union continues to fight for us.

The support, solidarity and fearless action demonstrated at SoJo is the only thing that scares Rahm and his Billionaire's Club at the Board of Education. These parents and teachers know that when a school is failing, it's not the fault of the teachers or students. It's the product of years of disrespecting our teachers, students and parents, and defunding public education to fund for-profit charter schools. And the only way to change this situation is to organize a fight.

As SoJo senior Hector Rivera said:

This school was built because of our collective efforts. We requested a better school in our community, and CPS built North Side Prep instead. It took a hunger strike to get our school.

CPS doesn't like students fighting back, they want to see us fail. But we are fighting for all students and communities. We won't settle for mediocrity. And this is what they are trying to do by cutting our AP classes and firing our teachers. We want to build a strong community, and this is just the beginning.

Trish Kahle contributed to this article.

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