Sunday, October 3 was not an official school day for my eight-year-old daughter, who is one of 400,000 kids enrolled in the Chicago Public Schools system. CPS, however, still managed to teach my child three important lessons on Sunday. And like many of life's most important lessons, these will never be fodder for examination on any of the standardized tests she takes each year.
My third-grader learned firsthand on Sunday that CPS operates two separate and unequal school systems. She also learned that she is one of the lucky kids -- the school she attends is a gem. Finally, she learned that parents and students need to speak up against such systemic inequality.
Her lesson started when she and I discussed a recent newspaper story about a group of determined moms from Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. Their kids attend Whittier Elementary School, and the moms are tired of their kids not having a school library. Ninety-percent of the kids who attend Whittier come from low-income families.
My daughter's school has a beautiful library (and a whole host of other amenities not found at Whittier). Fewer than five percent of my daughter's schoolmates come from low-income families.
Tired of having their kids get the short end of the stick, the Whittier moms decided to stage a sit-in. A few weeks ago, they set up shop in a small field house next to the school. The moms took over the field house after they learned that CPS intends to demolish the structure, which has long served as a makeshift community center for the Whittier parents and kids. Since moving into the building, the moms have begun to convert that space into a school library.
After talking with my daughter about the situation at Whittier, she and I decided to drive across town to meet the moms and their kids. Before heading down to Pilsen, my daughter packed up several stacks of her books to bring to the "new" Whittier library. We also picked up some food to help feed the highly-motivated troops.
After we arrived at the school, I spent most of my time talking to Araceli Gonzalez. She's a 46-year-old mom, and her youngest daughter is a fifth-grade Whittier student. Araceli works by day as a bank teller, and she's been operating on very little sleep for the past couple of weeks. After we toured the old field house, my daughter hit the playground out front with Araceli's daughter while Araceli and I sat down to talk shop.
In a nutshell, Araceli didn't understand why her daughter and her classmates weren't worthy of a small library. I didn't either.
She told me that since the moms had taken over the field house, no one from CPS had had any substantive discussions with them -- only threats of arrest and rumors of immigration raids. She said that one Chicago mayoral candidate, City Clerk Miguel del Valle, had stopped by to offer some support, but her own alderman, Danny Solis -- a long-time ally of Mayor Daley -- hadn't been much help. Rahm Emanuel also skipped out on the opportunity to meet with the Whittier parents when his "listening tour" passed through Pilsen on Monday.
Araceli didn't know how any of this was going to play out over the coming weeks, but she and her fellow moms assured me they weren't about to blink. After visiting with them and sensing their resolve, I'm not betting against them.
During our drive home, my daughter asked a lot of great questions about the differences between her school and Whittier. I didn't have a lot of great answers. (What do you say to a kid about a school system run by a mayor who can get away with telling reporters that Fenger High School -- one of the poorest performing high schools in Illinois -- is "a very good school"?)
On Monday morning, Araceli called to let me know that a Peoples Gas truck had just arrived at the school. As it turns out, the folks from the utility company weren't there to donate books; they had come to shut off the gas -- presumably on orders from CPS chief Ron Huberman. I told Araceli to get some flashlights, lanterns, batteries, and radios because CPS's next move would likely be to cut off the electricity. Araceli told me, "I'm here to the end. I'm not going anywhere."
When I told my daughter about CPS's decision to cut off the heat in the field house, she was incensed: "Why can't CPS just give them a library like my school has? I hope those moms stay there and fight."
I assured her the moms weren't going anywhere.
By Wednesday afternoon, even the Chicago City Council had had it with Huberman's tactics. The council unanimously approved an "order" requiring CPS to restore heat and hot water to the field house immediately.
On Wednesday night, the mood at the field house was upbeat. A number of us shared pizza and strategized. The gas heat was not yet back on, but the moms were more interested in talking about the political heat they needed to generate to get their kids a simple library.
The Whittier moms aren't "Waiting for Superman." They're just fighting for basic things that CPS manages to provide to my daughter and her friends.