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2010-10-21

Chicago Parents Occupy Elementary School Building to Prevent Demolition

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A preliminary deal has been reached between Chicago Public Schools and a group of parents who have occupied a field house at Whittier Elementary School for thirty-seven days to prevent its demolition. The Chicago Public Schools have agreed to build a library and scrap plans to demolish the field house and lease it to the local parents’ association instead. We get a report from Democracy Now!’s Jaisal Noor and speak to Chicago community organizer Cecile Carroll. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to the ongoing struggle to preserve quality public education across the country. Today we go to a longstanding battle in Chicago.

A preliminary deal was reached Wednesday between Chicago Public Schools and a group of immigrant parents who have occupied a field house at Whittier Elementary School for thirty-seven days to prevent its demolition. The Chicago Public Schools have agreed to build a library and scrap plans to demolish the field house and lease it to the local parents’ association instead.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite the agreement, the parents aren’t going home just yet. They’ve vowed to continue the sit-in at the field house until they get an agreement in writing.

For more, we go to this report filed by Democracy Now!’s Jaisal Noor, who traveled to Chicago last weekend.

JAISAL NOOR: In Chicago, forty school parents are entering their fifth week of an occupation of a small field house on the campus of Whittier Elementary. The school is located in the city’s impoverished Pilsen neighborhood, which is comprised mostly of recent Mexican immigrants. Daniella Mencia is a fifth grader at Whittier.

DANIELLA MENCIA: We normally call it "La Casita," "The Little House." We do a lot of things here. The moms know — they learn their GEDs — they earn them. They know — they teach them how to sew. They teach them how to make bracelets. And this Casita is really powerful because they use it for lots of things.

JAISAL NOOR: An assessment commissioned by the Chicago school system found the building unsafe for public use and put the cost of demolition at over $350,000. That amount would come from the $1.4 million in Chicago’s tax increment financing, or TIF, funds that parents had secured for renovations and an expansion of the school. Daniella’s mother is Araceli Gonzalez, a vocal member of the community.

ARACELI GONZALEZ: The school — there has been a fight for seven years. The school was in so bad of conditions, so finally the TIF gave money, and it was, you know, part of the — TIF is our tax money. So they remodeled, you know, renovated stuff that needed to be renovated. It wasn’t like a luxury. It needed to be renovated. If you would have seen this place before, oh, my god, it was bad.

JAISAL NOOR: The parents became skeptical of the school system’s claim when they learned the decision to demolish the field house was made prior to their structural assessment. The community commissioned an independent assessment, which found the building in, quote, "good condition" with only the roof needing repair. Whittier is one of 160 Chicago public schools without a library. Eager to preserve the building the call La Casita, community members launched a campaign to remake the La Casita into a library. Again, this is ten-year old Daniella Mencia.

DANIELLA MENCIA: When I heard that they were going to knock it down, but the moms wanted to make it to a library, I knew that this was my fight.

JAISAL NOOR: Daniella’s mother, Araceli Gonzalez, said that back in September the mothers decided to occupy the building until their demands were heard.

ARACELI GONZALEZ: I mean, we’ve been here since the 15th. The moms that made the decision, we were like about ten. And now we’re like about thirty-five to forty, about forty, I want to say, parents. And they’re coming more.

JAISAL NOOR: The demonstrators have resisted several attempts to remove them. On October 4th, Chicago Public Schools cut gas supplies to La Casita. But after two days of public outcry, the Chicago City Council ordered the gas be turned back on and the demolition be halted for six months. The following day, parents and volunteers opened their own makeshift library in La Casita. The community has since donated hundreds of books to La Casita. Daniella Mencia says her teachers are eager to make use of Whittier’s new library.

DANIELLA MENCIA: They’re telling us to come here and take out a book from the library, and they say it like really rejoiceful. And I know we’re going to keep this library, and this is going to be like — it’s going to be great for us to learn and to be better in reading.

JAISAL NOOR: Chicago community organizer Carolina Gaete, who has been working in the Pilsen community for five years, says the struggle goes far beyond Whittier Elementary and building a library there.

CAROLINA GAETE: This fight here at Whittier is not just about Whittier. It’s about really taking a stand and defending public education.

JAISAL NOOR: President Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, was the head of Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2009. Through direct mayoral control of the school system, he oversaw a program known as Renaissance 2010. It aimed to close sixty public schools and replace them with more than 100 selective charter schools. Gaete says these policies resulted in a crisis that neighborhood schools like Whittier are facing now.

CAROLINA GAETE: This has been in effect for already ten years here in Chicago, and this — when you go to communities where there’s no public schools, and those are the communities with a high crime rate. We cannot separate the really drying people of resources, then expecting the community to flourish. When you’re taking away the schools, children don’t have access to education. And I think that has been the effect of Renaissance 2010. When a group of mothers from Pilsen, an economically challenged immigrant community, have to sit in for twenty-five days to get a library, that is insane.

JAISAL NOOR: Today, Arne Duncan is overseeing a push by the administration to aggressively expand charter schools and mayoral control across the country through programs such as Race to the Top.

CAROLINA GAETE: I think this is a call out for all the other cities that are asking for mayoral control in order to get extra money with the Race to the Top. Don’t do it. Fight it. Fight it tooth and nail. At the end of the day, it is the worst thing that has happened to Chicago. It is the worst thing that has happened to public education.

JAISAL NOOR: The parents are in negotiations with Chicago Public Schools over the future of La Casita. They have vowed to continue the occupation until the school system agrees to allow Whittier to keep its new library. Chicago Public Schools did not respond to interview requests for the story. Araceli Gonzalez says she hopes the Whittier struggle can serve as a model for other communities.

ARACELI GONZALEZ: You know, we need to step up and do something about it, and this is what we basically did for our community. And I hope it goes on and on. In those other schools, they need stuff. They have the courage, and they could say, "The Whittier moms did it, so we can do it, too."

JAISAL NOOR: For Democracy Now!, this is Jaisal Noor in Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: And special thanks also to Nicole Hummel.

For more on the story, we stay in Chicago with Cecile Carroll, community organizer and co-director of the group Blocks Together. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Cecile Carroll, this is almost like a Republic Windows and Doors struggle for education, public education. Could you talk about what the parents have decided with this latest offer from the Chicago school officials to end the standoff?

CECILE CARROLL: Well, I haven’t been with the parents in the last couple of days. I’ve actually been in Washington, DC, working on some facility stuff for the greater Chicago area. But with every negotiation that the parents have had with CPS, they’ve been cautiously optimistic. They’ve been trying to make sure that they are being very careful with each step that they put forward and making sure that they are still making it clear to the administration that they will continue the sit-in if the promises that are put on the table right now fall through.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And could you place this in a larger context of the impact of this more than month-long struggle on the Chicago community and what it means for parents’ struggles for public education nationwide?

CECILE CARROLL: Sure. I’m so inspired by the Whittier struggle, and I think it’s such a timely struggle, as well. I think what’s been happening here in the last couple of years under the education policy Renaissance 2010 is that when it started to play out in the local communities, is that some of the schools that were already struggling in a lot of our neighborhoods where there’s low-income people of color, some of the schools that were affected by the school actions from Renaissance 2010 ended up taking more resources from the schools that did not have actions. So you’ll have a community —- let’s say there’s twenty schools, and five of those schools have some type of school action, a turnaround, a closure for a charter, a consolidation of a school for another one -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: We have about ten seconds left.

CECILE CARROLL: And what happened was that the other schools that didn’t have these school actions ended up not having any resources. And Whittier is a clear example of that. And those top-down decision makings end up having the community actually struggling even more.

AMY GOODMAN: Cecile Carroll, thanks so much for being with us, Chicago community organizer, co-director of Blocks Together.

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