Last fall, a group of mothers in a largely Mexican neighborhood in Chicago made national headlines in their fight to save the fieldhouse at their children’s elementary school.
Chicago Public Schools had planned to raze the building to put in an athletic field. But after students' parents organized a 43-day sit-in -- during which, at one point, CPS literally attempted to freeze out protesters, shutting off heat to the building in 40-degree temperatures -- the district and the parents were eventually able to negotiate an agreement to save the edifice.
Eight months later, the city has a new mayor, a new school board and a new schools CEO. Suddenly, the parents at the Whittier Dual Language Elementary in the Pilsen neighborhood feel a more figurative blast of cold air, as the new leadership denies them a meeting and proceeds with a plan the families say violates the spirit of their earlier agreement.
Originally, the Whittier Parent Committee, which organized the sit-in, had a simple demand: they wanted a library for their kids. Whittier is one of more than 150 schools in Chicago without one, and the parents saw La Casita, a small fieldhouse on school grounds, as the perfect place.
The compromise negotiated with CPS said that the school would lease the fieldhouse to the parents, CPS would work with legislators to secure funds for its renovation, and Whittier would end up with a library.
Now, new schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard is set to begin building one at the school -- not in the field house, but in an already-occupied classroom inside the main building.
“They’re moving one teacher out of her classroom, and they’re moving her into the Special Ed class,” an outraged Gema Gaete, a leader of the Whittier Parent Committee, told Huffington Post Chicago. “Already the school is so small that I see the teachers having to teach Special Ed kids in the hallway.”
Gaete and other parent and community activists are puzzled: with a separate building that could easily house books, why displace more students in an already-crowded school?
For the district, it’s largely a question of money. Chicago’s schools face a staggering budget shortfall, and La Casita needs some renovations. In correspondence with the parents, Brizard wrote, “We are currently making very difficult decisions and financial sacrifices across the school district to offset the massive $712 million deficit, and unfortunately, we still do not have capital funds for the project you are requesting.”
The parents, though, counter that money’s not the problem. CPS had set aside $364,000 for the demolition of the building; add that to $200,000 in state dollars set aside by state Rep. Eddie Acevedo (D), and they say they’re most of the way to putting in a new library.
A non-profit architectural firm made designs for the parents of a renovated La Casita, which would be turned into an environmentally friendly library and multi-purpose instructional room. Gaete said it would only take an additional $200,000 or so to put the plans in place, and that the parents could fundraise that money on their own--especially given the possibility of grant money for green construction.
For the moment, though, they’re not asking for all that.
“All we asked Brizard was to put a stop--stop spending our money [on building the library in the school] and sit down and meet with us,” Gaete said. “This could be a good opportunity. Brizard is going all over the city talking about how he’s for social justice. Start with us.”
A spokesperson for the schools indicated in email correspondence with HuffPost Chicago that such a stop wasn’t about to happen.
Construction was actually scheduled to begin Monday, the spokesman said, but heavy rains caused a temporary delay. The plan to put the library inside the school “has been thoroughly vetted over the past six months, and any additional delay could ultimately cause a delay in construction and availability of the library to the students it is meant to serve,” he wrote in a message.
Essentially, the district is saying that it doesn’t have time to talk. Community leaders in Pilsen are scrambling to organize before the construction trucks arrive at the school, which could happen as early as Wednesday. But if last fall’s six-week sit-in was any indication, Brizard might be in for some stubborn resistance.