Is there a glimmer of hope for post-Daley Chicago?
Whittier Elementary School's grass-roots community, led by a handful of school mothers, opposes the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) plan to demolish the adjacent field house and replace it with an astroturf field. Instead, they want the building to be turned into a library. Whittier school has a only tiny book collection, and there is no public library close by. The central office says the field house is not structurally sound, but the community has gotten a second opinion that the structure needs only a few repairs.
So, Whittier parents and local school council (LSC) members, along with students, teachers, and community members in this predominantly Latino Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago are occupying the field house to prevent the city from pulling what we in Chicago call a "Meigs."
In the middle of the night on March 31, 2003, Mayor Daley sent bulldozers to Meigs Field for a midnight razing of the city's small lakefront airport. Despite agreements to keep the field open and with airplanes still sitting on the tarmac, Daley's bulldozers dug three huge Xs across the runways.
The Mayor's April Fool X's are still there, a testament to the arrogance of power.
Few efforts to oppose Daley have worked during his 21 year reign. A notable exception is the 2001 Mothers' Day sit-in in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, another predominantly Latino neighborhood west of Pilsen. The mothers went on a hunger strike for 19 days to get a new high school for the community. Little Village Lawndale High School Campus opened four years later, a testament to the people power that survives even under Daley.
Will it be safe to like LSCs again?
Alejandro Escalona, a new hire at the Chicago Sun-Times, recently wrote about the Whittier field house sit-in as it headed into its third week.
His report is remarkable for the extensive, kind words he has for local school councils, the elected parent-majority school governing bodies in CPS, hated by Mayor Daley and usually ignored by the local press.
Perhaps even more remarkable is his quote from mayoral candidate and current City Clerk Miguel del Valle, who visited the Whittier site and talked about the importance 1988 Chicago school reform bill that created the councils.
" 'The argument then was that we needed more parent involvement in the decision-making process of the schools,' said del Valle. 'And here we are, decades later, with local school council members saying that in 14 days they have not had contact with the Chicago Board of Education. This is not the way CPS should treat local school councils.' "
Contrast this with Mayor's Daley's recent radio interview comments about LSCs, which, he said in Daleyese, had "not gone well."
In reality, LSCs have "gone well," according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Its 1997 study of LSCs found that 77 percent functioned well. Follow-up studies were also positive.
Other research has shown that low-performing schools with effective councils had vastly better results between 1999-2005, as measured by test scores, than similar schools where the central office had taken over the LSC's governing role.
But since 2004, many Chicago schools have lost their councils as a result of Renaissance 2010, Daley's signature schools program. Run by former CPS CEO Arne Duncan, now U.S. Education Secretary, R2010 has closed over 80 schools and opened about 100 new ones. Ironically, LSCs have a better track record than R2010, which has been judged a failure by many measures.
PURE recently filed a state appellate court case against CPS for dissolving LSCs in R2010 schools and replacing them with advisory councils selected by the Daley-appointed Board of Education.
Parent determination likely to outlast Daley
During their occupation of the Whittier field house, parents have begun building a neighborhood library from supporters' donations of books and other materials. The Sun-Times's Escalona praises their efforts:
"This whole episode could be turned into a model of cooperation between a local school council, CPS and the local community -- including the alderman and business leaders -- to strengthen a neighborhood school. CPS should not let the sit-in at Whittier Elementary turn into an example of arrogance and autocracy."
Is it possible that arrogance and autocracy are on their way out in Chicago? Or will they simply find a new host?