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Esther J. Cepeda Headshot

Field Trip Over: Meeks' Boycott Kids Finally Out of Media Glare

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Anyone who cares about kids in this town getting a shot at a decent education surely looked at the Chicago Public School children who marched into Winnetka and felt the rumbling pride of civil rights crusades past.

The images were enough to make even the most cynical opponent of Meeks' guerilla techniques to get proper school funding for the poorest of Chicago's communities feel like maybe his stunt wasn't such a bad idea.

But if you happened to see the kiddies, neatly dressed in oversized orange t-shirts and splayed cross-legged across the floors of several Loop businesses Wednesday morning, you couldn't help but squirm and wonder if the ends truly justified the means.

Perhaps the sight turned off enough people that Meeks was pressured to stop, though his remarks at a Wednesday night press conference indicate he's calling the whole thing off to call Gov. Rod Blagojevich's bluff. Blagojevich said he wouldn't open a school-funding dialogue until the kids are back in school.

The children who Tuesday so cheerfully endured the heat, humidity and long bus ride to Winnetka to try to register in the New Trier school district, spent their Wednesday making do on the floors of air conditioned office buildings.

I stopped by City Hall early Wednesday where a cluster of kids and chaperones hung out in front of Mayor Daley's office, then later strolled over to the James R. Thompson Building where, in advance of the Reverend and State Senator James Meeks' noon press conference, a gaggle of kids were half-heartedly taken through some language arts lessons by retired school teachers while a crowd gawked, photographers snapped pictures and reporters asked the standard "How do you feel" questions of young'uns unaccustomed to being displayed like the gazelles at Lincoln Park Zoo.

After the cameras were clicked off, the children were taken away for a snack out of public view and one organizer talked to me about the day's work.

"The kids have been great," the Reverend Dearal Jordan, a full-time pastor at Meeks' Salem Baptist Church, told me as school buses were being pulled around to take some kids over to AT&T headquarters where they'd been invited for a late lunch. "They're happy, they're still energetic...they've been working on a special curriculum of reading and math so they can keep up with their classmates."

I can't speak for the students at any of the other sixteen corporate locations, but the kiddies at the Thompson center looked like their energy was flagging.

Any school teacher, as I was for a few years, can tell you that those first days of school are a tremendous struggle even under the best of circumstances. Young bodies show up to class tired from getting up early, hungry from having their meal schedule drastically changed from one day to another, and antsy about making the adjustment to their new home away from home.

The children scattered across the lobbies of the corporate power centers of this state were no different, except they didn't have the luxury of getting used to the rhythms of a new school year. Their first days were alternately a fun field trip and a boring doctor's office-type wait, while people in power played a form of high-stakes chicken with each other.

Granted, the classrooms they'll finally walk into Thursday will be hot, sticky, cramped, overcrowded, and lacking in adequate materials but there will be regularity, familiar surroundings, and an adult who is single-mindedly devoted to ensuring their academic success under even the worst of circumstances. It may not be much, but even that bit of regimented continuity is essential to their health and well-being.

Wednesday night Meeks did a subdued sort of endzone dance - thankfully, with no quasi-Greek chorus of half-asleep grade-schoolers by his side - as he announced the end of his particularly powerful stunt.

Meeks told the night's media throng he and his coalition were calling on all students to get to school the next morning in hopes of sitting down with Gov. Blagojevich Thursday. "Our children have had an opportunity to see what a well-funded school looks like...this effort has been a success." CPS estimated that the boycott cost them $100,000 in state reimbursement - which would be a drop in the $120 million dollar bucket Meeks is seeking.

Only time will tell whether this living, breathing display of the intersection between childhood potential and the broken promise of equal and unseparate education for all will succeed in bringing about meaningful and appropriately-funded reform to Chicago Public Schools. But, at last, Thursday morning while Illinois' power-brokers get to work on figuring the money out, the children Meeks used to prove his point will finally get the opportunity to crack open their new boxes of crayons and learn their teachers' names.

For better or worse, they're already behind their peers whose parents opted to send them to school. The question is: how far will their efforts go or how far behind will this two-day field trip have left them?