Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel was swept into office on a popular mandate, and he made it clear from inauguration day that he would be expending a great deal of that political capital on reforming the Chicago Public Schools.
But as he and his new schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard prepare for sweeping, system-wide changes, they face a bitter struggle over a very small-bore decision: the construction of a library at a neighborhood elementary school.
Police and parents faced off in a tense showdown at Whittier Elementary School in the primarily Mexican Pilsen neighborhood on Thursday morning, as a district-sent construction truck was eventually turned away to the cheers of the gathered protesters.
(Scroll down for photos of the protest.)
The debate over a library at Whittier began anew on Wednesday, as construction crews from CPS arrived at the school while parents and community activists were testifying at a Chicago Board of Education meeting. They prepared to convert a classroom on the school's second floor into a library; parents, meanwhile, are fighting for the field house affectionately known as "La Casita" to be converted into a larger, greener and more functional library space.
In the fall of 2010, mothers of Whittier children occupied La Casita for 43 days, as they learned that CPS was planning to demolish the building and replace it with a soccer field for use by the neighboring Cristo Rey private Jesuit high school.
They negotiated an agreement that the building wouldn't be destroyed, and that it would instead be leased to the parents, an agreement that ended the sit-in and one that new CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard has supported.
Parents had always planned for that library to be put in La Casita, where they have set up a temporary one which they run and maintain. After collaboration with a non-profit architectural firm working pro bono, they came up with a design for renovating the space. The firm “worked for six months, day in and day out to develop a plan with input from the community, from parents and from students,” said Whittier Parent Committee organizer Evelyn Santos.
(Part of the parent-created design for renovating La Casita.)
The plan includes energy efficiencies, vertical gardens, collaborative spaces and ideas for community engagement. And its cost, under $800,000, isn’t far from the money already set aside by the area’s alderman and state senator.
So when CPS, without meeting with parents, decided instead to install the library on the building’s second floor, displacing special-education students from their already overcrowded room, parents were outraged. And tensions escalated.
Thursday morning, a small group of parents and community activists stood in the school’s parking lot, forming a line to prevent a dump truck from approaching the school and getting to work. Shortly thereafter, police were called.
By 1 p.m., six officers stood in the parking lot, with a police van parked at its entrance. Several more officers were parked in a handful of cars lining 23rd street in front of the school.
Protesters said they’d been threatened with arrest, though officers were placid as the first reporters arrived. “There are a lot of shootings going on around here,” activist Gema Gaete called out to the assembled officers. “We’re not the criminals.”
Gaete and others said they’d be re-occupying the field house, in part as a result of a rumored city permit to demolish the building.
A spokesman for Chicago Public Schools responded to questions about this demolition permit with an emphatic email:
THERE IS NO PLAN TO DEMOLISH THE FIELDHOUSE.
The permit you are referencing was for pulled [sic] last year when the plan was replace the fieldhouse and replace it with an athletic field. We will ensure that the permit is cancelled.
AGAIN, WE ARE NOT PLANNING TO DEMOLISH THE FIELDHOUSE. We are prepared to honor the commitments we have made regarding the fieldhouse, all of which you have via our earlier communications.
There is NO PLAN to demolish the fieldhouse.
Parents, though, have apparently lost all faith in the district. Evelin Santos said that they'd seen this happen before, and that they'd continue their occupation despite CPS's denials. "Their actions speak louder than their words," Santos told Huffington Post Chicago.
Mayor Emanuel and CPS CEO Brizard reportedly spoke at a YMCA not far from the Whittier School on Thursday afternoon. A stop at Whittier Elementary was apparently not on their schedule.
See photos from the protest (credit Will Guzzardi):