A final call for justice

June 26, 2013

Alexander Billet reports on an occupation at Lafayette Elementary, one of the 50 Chicago public schools that Rahm Emanuel is determined to shut down.

THE SCHOOL year is over in Chicago. For thousands of elementary school students, this means they'll never see the inside of their school again.

This year, though, It isn't only students who will move on to high school. It doesn't matter how much they love their teachers, the school's programs or the friends they've sat next to every day for years. If their school was one of the 50 elementary schools--mostly in predominantly Black and Latino South and West Sides neighborhoods--being shuttered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, then it was the last time they will set foot in those hallways.

So it is for the kids at Lafayette Elementary in Humboldt Park, on the city's West Side. But parents and students had no intention of going quietly. By the time the final bell rang on June 19, nine parents and students had decided to make one last stand and occupied the building.

Not long after, a crowd of around a hundred had gathered in front of Lafayette. They weren't just parents and students--they were teachers, community members and some of the countless others in Chicago who were drawn into activism by last fall's teachers' strike and the fight against school closures in recent months.

Students chant at the front doors of occupied Lafayette Elementary in Chicago
Students chant at the front doors of occupied Lafayette Elementary in Chicago (Sarah-ji)

The crowd began to shrink down to about 50 people not long afterward, but there was a spirited resolve clearly on display. Camera crews from major networks nearby weren't suffering for lack of colorful shots--kids and adults alike were chalking "Don't close our schools" on the sidewalk and making their own signs with cardboard, poster board and markers.

Several of the signs highlighted the racism and hypocrisy of Emanuel's school closings. A few spoke about Lafayette's music and arts programs.

Even Emanuel himself, along with just about every other "school reformer," can be forced to admit how important arts education is for a child's development. Lafayette has something that is becoming a tragic rarity in American public ed: a functional arts program, not to mention a well-run string orchestra.

ONE OF the kids out front was Larissa. When asked why her school was worth defending, the first thing out of her mouth was: "It has a good program for the artistic kids."

Five days earlier, Lafayette's student orchestra held its final performance. An article published the next day at DNAinfo highlighted the sadness felt by a great many of the parents and students. One of the parents was Rousemary Vega, herself a graduate of Lafayette and one of the many who have thrown themselves into the fight for education justice.

"It's shocking," she told DNAinfo. "I have no more words. We fought and fought and fought to keep this going, something so good for these kids, and it was snatched from under them."

Her daughter, a cellist, takes the music quite seriously, as does her mother. Rousemary also pointed out that nearby Chopin Elementary, one of two nearby "receiving schools" that will be absorbing Lafayette's kids, doesn't get its own string orchestra.

"This music that they're playing, it's not easy," she said. "So to take on that challenge is amazing," It's not surprising that Rousemary was one of the parents inside Lafayette a few days later on the 19th.

Chicago police arrived on the scene and brought a representative from the Department of Children and Family Services to talk to the occupying parents. Their message was as shameless as it was contradictory: fight for your children's future, and we'll take your children away.

Nobody can blame some of the parents for taking this threat seriously and going home at that point. That left six people still inside: Rousemary, her husband and three kids -- two of whom were elementary school age.

Meanwhile, several parents continued to picket outside. Mary, the mother of another musician in the string orchestra, said that she also went to Lafayette along with other members of her family: "This school has been here over a hundred years, and I thought my daughter was going to graduate from eighth grade here. And now this."

She lives right across the street from the school; when her daughter goes to Chopin, she'll have to walk six blocks. Not a huge distance, but considering Humboldt Park has a history of gang activity and violence, six blocks can be a long walk.

AS PART of the campaign to save Chicago schools, education justice activists have brought attention to the fact that many students will now be forced to cross gang lines in order to get to their new schools each day. One of these schools is Cabrini Green's Manierre Elementary.

Manierre was originally on the closure list, but a campaign waged by parents and teachers forced Chicago's school board to take it off. Representatives from Manierre also turned out at Lafayette to relay messages of support.

This exposes the hypocrisy of politicians who regularly use the question of gangs to appear "tough on crime" even as they wipe schools and jobs from neighborhood maps, which will only increase poverty and crime in these neighborhoods.

Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett have claimed--even over vocal opposition--that they are closing schools to prevent "under-utlization." Yet Lafayette's kids will now be shoved into classrooms at nearby Chopin, which is already overcrowded.

"How are you going to have all that overcrowding" Mary asked. "All those kids in one class? How are they [the teachers] going to have time for them? What's going to happen with these kids?"

Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett claim they are waging a war on schools and teachers that aren't up to snuff. But Lafayette is a high-performing school, and the parents at the protest had nothing but good things to say about the teachers.

"We have a good relationship with all the teachers," said Mary. "They already knew me, they know my daughter, they know my family. It's not just like official; they care about my daughter. Any emergency, they call my cell phone."

The mayor and CPS also claim that that they're looking out for kids' best interests. Why then, as Lafayette's sterling orchestra is playing its last, are its students being sent to Chopin, a school that doesn't even have a basic art program?

Said Mary: "They're taking out the art class, they're taking out science class, and they're making the gym smaller so that they have room to teach regular classes!"

Lafayette has 182 special needs students attending classes there. Chopin, where they will likely be sent, has no special education or services to aid with special needs kids, even though over 16 percent of Chopin's student body already have special needs.

Lafayette had a well-run, decades-old program to assist kids with autism at the school. Now it seems like it's about to vanish.

The shuttering of 50 schools is a huge loss for anyone who cares about the basic right to education. So many of the parents and teachers who fought and won to keep a tiny handful open are continuing the struggle for the other schools. The events at Lafayette show that militancy can be contagious, and it would be a mistake to believe that this fight is over.

The Lafayette occupation ended at 6:30 p.m., and, after hours of negotiating with police, Rousemary and her family exited the school voluntarily. She spoke to the press before going back in to drop off her daughter's cello. It apparently was school property.

"It almost feels like quitting, like giving up every little bit of hope that I had for this school," said Vega. "As a parent, I can't afford to provide her with the music program she wants to do. To have to come in today and have her turn in her instrument after having it for three years--it's very hurtful."

The cops smiled, clapped each other on the back, shook hands and congratulated each other. No arrests were made. They were able to go home and not have a mountain of paperwork to deal with. Meanwhile, in the world of actual consequences, a school was being shut down, and parents, teachers and students weren't happy about it.

Brian Bean, Patrick Delsoin and Noreen McNulty contributed to this article.

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