As I rode the CTA Green Line and Number 52 bus to Lafayette School on Chicago’s West Side on the Saturday morning of May 18, I wondered what impact our 3 Day March for Education Justice would have.
The plan was to have 3 days of marches through the South and West Sides of the city to many of the 54 Chicago schools threatened with closing. Marches from the North Side were also added late last week. We would then merge forces with a mass rally at City Hall on Monday afternoon of May 20.
Mayor Emanuel has won few hearts and minds on the South and West Sides of Chicago, where most of the city’s African American and Latino population lives. School closings are about as popular there as a swarm of yellow jackets at a backyard BBQ. I knew we would have the support of the West Side neighborhoods we would be walking through.
Last week Mayor Emanuel’s plan to close 54 Chicago schools was showing serious cracks
On Saturday morning as I walked toward the CTA station I saw this the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times. Was the Mayor starting to crack a little also?
The Mayor’s idea of using firefighters to ensure children’s safety while crossing gang borders and contested turf lines was greeted with guffaws and looks of bewildered disbelief. Tom Ryan, president of Chicago Firefighters Union said that if violence occurs,"We don't have the training or the equipment to deal with that.”
The Chicago Tribune finally studied the documents related to the school closings and began spotlighting the ones that “raised questions”, or as the Mayor’s opponents put it, are simply outright lies.
On Thursday May 16, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle tore into the Mayor saying:
What was the point of having public hearings. Was it all a charade? If you weren’t going to pay any attention to the outcome of the public hearings or the recommendations of the public hearing officers, why would you bother to waste everyone’s time?”
On Friday May 17 Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis led the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (C.O.R.E.) to a stunning re-election sweep. C.O.R.E.’s opponents had the help of MK Communications, City Hall’s favorite PR group as well as the backing of the Chicago Tribune. C.O.R.E members were especially angered when attacks against the caucus appeared on the Chicago Public Schools computer network.
The C.O.R.E. re-election victory was a strong endorsement of the CTU’s opposition to the racist agenda of school closings, hi-stakes testing and the corporate takeover of public education.
Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools called for a walkouts on Monday May 20 which coincides with the conclusion of the 3 Day March.
The marches begin on Saturday morning
I was marching from the West Side since it is near my Oak Park home. I arrived at the Lafayette School staging area shortly after 10 am. I joined a spirited crowd of about 300 people who held signs, burst into chants and sang songs as we waited for the 8 mile march to begin.
Magdalene Thurmond spoke for many West Side residents when she said,"Anyone who supports school closings is destroying African American's and Hispanic children's education and future. Everyone knows that education is the key to success.”
Parent Valerie Nelson talked about how the best way to close schools is to “starve them of resources.” The result is that parents will often pull their children from the school and the school will become “underutilized” and thus on the closing list.
Chicago Teachers Union vice-president Jesse Sharkey gave an impassioned speech talking about the Mayor’s “bad week” and told us,” Now is the time to dare and win this fight.”
Natasha Capers came all the way from Brooklyn to be with us and talk about a national movement for education justice:
"I have already seen 100 schools over the past ten years. We have felt the impact of school closings on children, on communities of color. This is not a New York fight, this is not a Philadelphia fight,, this is not a Newark fight, this is a national fight. Look around this rally. We are different colors. We come from different places. We come from different neighborhoods.”After more short speeches, the March stepped off and we walked west on Augusta Blvd to the honks and gestures of support from passing motorists.
Conversations around me echoed the familiar themes of the school closing hearings where thousands came out to express opposition. A school is not simply a building for CPS to invent bogus “underutilization” numbers so they can close schools and open up corporate-backed charters that exclude special-needs students and expel young people for minor infractions of the rules.
People talked of Rahm’s expensive plan to build a fancy new basketball stadium for DePaul University near the city’s McCormick Place convention center, which is nowhere near DePaul. This is at a time when he says there is not enough money for the schools. The name of multi-billionaire and former school board member Penny Pritzker came up frequently. She is seen as a person who was milking public funds and exploiting her hotel workers while voting to close schools in working class neighborhoods.
There was speculation about Toni Preckwinkle running for Mayor and perhaps even CTU President Karen Lewis. When we stopped for lunch at the threatened Marconi school, Karen Lewis paid us a visit and was greeted by chants of “Karen for Mayor.” Both women deny that they are interested, but isn’t that what political figures always say early in the game?
We also heard from parents and community members when we stopped at various points for breaks and lunch. Torrance Shorter is a parent at Ryerson School which is on the closing list. Shorter told us:
”Not only did I go to Ryerson, my father went to Ryerson when he was a kid and now my son and my grand nieces and nephews go to Ryerson. Ryerson is more than a school building where my kids go to school. It’s second home for my children.”
What Rahm calls “failing schools” are often thriving communities where complex human relationships form that strengthen neighborhoods battered by decades of racial segregation, poverty and deliberate disinvestment.
Shorter explained that when it comes to school closings he is “a very emotional man.“ It’s easy to see why. School closings tear apart the human relationships formed not just among students and their teachers. but among the community as a whole. The schools on the West Side closing list are not “failing schools.” They are working hard to improve and often succeedagainst tremendous odds. That explains the fierce loyalty that the surrounding communities have for their schoosl.
Windy Pearson of the Action Now community organization said,
“They [CPS] have lied continuously in regards to what is available and what is not available for our children and our communities. As this has been proven over and over again to be racist attack upon our children in our communities by the closing of schools and the disregard of our educational values.”
Loyalty to neighborhood schools is not misplaced. A study done by the respected Designs for Change research group in Chicago said that schools with a democratic governance of “ ...school-based participation by parents, teachers, non-teaching school staff, community members, principals, and students” can provide an excellent education even under the conditions of extreme poverty.
Reckless school closings are a dagger in the heart for communities already besieged by serious social problems by the policies of racism and poverty imposed by Chicago’s elite.
The day was warm as we marched through both residential and commercial neighborhoods. Nowhere did we meet hostility. We got waves of support as activists rushed over to hand out leaflets and window signs. Sometimes people would join the March for part of the distance. I saw Action Now leader Windy Pearson recruit several impromptu marchers.
Although we often temporarily blocked traffic on busy thoroughfares as we wound through the West Side, most people still showed their support with gestures and friendly horn honks. Once a group of somewhat fierce looking motorcyclists had to stop for us. They responded by gunning their engines and beeping their horns in appreciation.
Armed with her mandolin, Chicago music teacher Michelle Gunderson led us in freedom songs at several rest stops and periodically as we marched. As the day wore on and most of us were pretty tired and footsore, it seemed more people were coming out of their homes to greet us.
We eventually made it to the far western border of the city by Columbus Park where I often ride my bike to photograph plants and urban wildlife. At Emmet School there on the edge of city, Karen Lewis met us again. She assured us that while we were not an “ocean” of people marching, what we were doing was important.
Then we turned back east and headed for the gem of the West Side, the huge green space of Garfield Park with its Conservatory of plants from around the world as well as Leif Ericson Elementary which was our last stop. Along the way on this last leg of our Saturday march, we got our biggest community response . Tired as we were, fatigue seemed to melt away. We finished the day with dinner at Ericson and dance performances by Ericson students.
Today is Sunday and I after I post this I’ll pack my March supplies and ride the CTA a short distance back to Ericson and resume the March for Education Justice. I’ll also march again on Monday and if the rumored civil disobedience takes place, I’m planning to join in. I don’t know if we can save all 54 schools, but this struggle for education justice is a marathon, not a sprint. And as we reminded ourselves as we gulped water yesterday in the heat of this Chicago Spring, this is only the beginning.
CPS documents raise questions about closings by Bob Secter and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah
Toni Preckwinkle rips Emanuel, says CPS closure plan ‘weakens our public schools’ by Dan MIihalopolulos
Students Stage 'Die In' at School-Closing Protest by Darryl Holliday
May 20th Boycott - Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools by Dallas Wright
Handful of CPS schools slated to close may be spared by Fran Spielman and Lauren Fitzpatrick