The Whittier Sit-in

By Harry Backlund

At 9am on October 25, as the bell of Pilsen’s Whittier Dual Language Elementary School rings for the start of classes, a group of about a dozen mothers gather at the entrance to the school’s field house, where, for 40 days to the minute, they have held a sit-in to save the building from demolition and establish it as a library for their children.

A white tent hangs over the front of the building, a small American flag and a cross made of rolled-up paper above. Aside from a handful of allied community organizers, the group at the folding tables underneath is all middle-aged Latina women. This meeting happens here every morning, but today the scene is quiet. One mother bounces a baby, another knits. The group looks tired, tough, and bored. In mixed Spanish and English they talk out how to approach a meeting that could bring a successful end to their protest. Next to them, a painted sheet shows a wrecking ball labeled “CPS” suspended over a small boy reading a book called “The Man Who Killed a Dream.” Bold letters next to the image read, “HUBERMAN DONT KILL OUR DREAM OF SUCESS. GIVE US A LIBRARY.” The spelling errors only make the message more urgent.

The story of the Whittier School sit-in revolves around a debate about two flawed structures: the Whittier field house, with its sagging roof and crumbling awning, and the bureaucracy of a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system that stands accused of putting numbers ahead of students.

The 400 some students at Whittier don’t yet reflect the demographics of a rapidly gentrifying Pilsen–98 percent are Hispanic, and two thirds speak Spanish as their first language. As condos rise around the school, 98 percent of its students are also on free or reduced lunch. Whittier is the only bilingual school in Pilsen, and one of the few left in the district.

Parents trace their frustrations with CPS back seven years, when they first formed a parents committee. Evelin Santos, a community organizer and Pilsen parent, has worked with the parents’ committee for the past year. “Parents started asking questions about why they were being neglected, about why nothing was being paid for. Of the five schools in Pilsen, why was Whittier most neglected?” The parents tried to secure tax increment financing (TIF) funds for badly needed renovations of the main school building. TIF is meant to benefit poor neighborhoods by freezing income taxes and using the extra funds for development, but is easily abused when these funds aren’t released.

by Harry Backlund

The most recent struggles began after Whittier was converted to a K-8 school, as part of a systemic shift toward charter schools. Parents again asked for renovations including an expansion into the abandoned police station next door. Some significant renovations were done this summer with $1.4 million in city funds, but Santos points to shoddy work. “They cleared out whole classrooms and then painted only patches. My four-year-old could do that.”

Far more upsetting was the news that CPS had allocated $356,000 of that to demolishing the field house, which has long served as an unofficial community center where parents take English classes and students go after school lets out. Parents learned of the demolition order in July, first at a parents meeting, and then officially in a schedule of renovations from the construction company. The space was to be turned into a sports field to be shared by Whittier and the nearby Cristo Rey Catholic high school. “It was devastating,” says Santos. “CPS knew that was our community center.” The parents group attended hearings throughout the summer asking that the building be turned into a library. They hired an engineering firm to assess the building; their report said the building was structurally sound and required only a new roof. At a CPS meeting in August they presented a petition with 900 signatures. The order stayed. The Whittier parents allege a web of duplicity spanning from their local alderman Danny Solis (25th Ward) to CPS CEO Ron Huberman, all the way up to Mayor Daley.

At 9am on September 15, the Wednesday of the second week of classes, with the demolition looming, the parents group met in the field house and voted unanimously not to leave. The sit-in began. The group broke up the day into shifts of four and six hours, and set up air mattresses on the floor. The next day they took signs to nearby Benito Juarez High School, where CPS CEO Ron Huberman, Alderman Solis, and Mayor Richard M. Daley were cutting the ribbons of a new expansion. Huberman’s office became the target of their campaign.

On Friday, October 17, there was a standoff at Whittier. Dozens of police set up barricades in the streets around the field house, threatening to arrest the mothers for abandonment if they didn’t leave the field house to pick up their children when the last bell rang. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune at the scene, CPS Media Relations Officer Monique Bond said, “With the budgetary constraints we are under, nothing is going to happen. That building has to come down.”

Santos remembers the scene inside La Casita, “We came together and it was like, ‘whoever is going to get arrested, stay in here. We’re all mothers, if you can’t, you can’t. We understand.’ Some mothers left. There were ten of us left. [When the bell rang] all of a sudden you saw hundreds of people bust through the tape. They were shouting you can do it! We are supporting you!” No arrests were made, and the sit-in continued.

by Harry Backlund

The parents settled in. In the back room of La Casita, Araceti Gonzalez, a single mother of three, including a Whittier fourth grader, describes the pattern of her days. “I go to work without sleeping, I do laundry and wash, I come back, I stay up the night shift. And I will continue. My 14-year-old has made me dinner,” she laughs sadly.

In the weeks that followed, numerous organizations signed on to a statement of solidarity with the parents’ committee and a group of individual sympathetic allies helped establish a long-term, sustainable structure for the sit-in. Nurses from Stroger Hospital helped organize a health day, taking blood pressure and talking about healthy eating.

With no compromise in sight, the parents’ committee decided to start their own library. Individual volunteers from the nonprofit Chicago Underground Library helped catalogue the collection, and thousands of donated books came from as far away as Vermont and Maryland. The library was officially opened on September 30, just over two weeks into the sit-in, with a public celebration and a press conference. Now the back room of La Casita is a functioning volunteer-run library that looks a lot like any other public school library.

On October 4, workers from the ironically named Peoples Gas company dug a hole in the grass across the playground from the field house. CPS had ordered the heat cut off. Manuel Beltran, the father of four Whittier students, currently isn’t working, and has become one of the few men to take an active role in the sit-in. He remembers talking with the workers and learning the heat was cut off. “Chicago Public Schools,” he says simply, as two of his kids play on the playground during recess. “Public.” As temperatures fell below 40 degrees, supporters brought electric space heaters and extra blankets for the parents. Three days later, on October 7, CPS offered a six-month truce to the parents. The parents refused.

Their resolve paid off. Days later the heat was turned on again, and the next Wednesday, October 13, Alderman Solis and several other elected officials agreed to write a letter in support of the parents’ demands and make sure it landed in Huberman’s hands. Thursday, the parents delivered the letter to CPS and were told there should be no problem getting them an answer by Friday at the end of business hours. Friday night there was no response. That Sunday the parents held a vigil in front of CPS headquarters, burning candles and praying for a response from Huberman. Monday there was still no letter. The parents marched to CPS downtown headquarters, where they say personnel at Huberman’s office denied any knowledge of the letter. They moved the march to city hall, intent on heading to the fifth floor where Daley keeps his office. Police agreed to let them up, without any banners or speakers. Mayor Daley wasn’t in his office. “We had a hard time even getting the scheduler to come out,” Santos recalls.

On Tuesday morning the Tribune broke the news that Huberman had scheduled an appointment with the Whittier parents’ committee. “It was the first we’d heard of a meeting,” says Santos. The parents’ committee found out that Huberman was meeting at Juarez High School with local elected officials and representatives of charter schools. After being turned away from the meeting, they surrounded the building with a parent at every exit. When Huberman made a break for his car, several parents caught up with him and demanded details. “He had scheduled the meeting for 3pm. He’s the head of CPS. He knows what time school gets out,” says Gonzalez. The meeting was rescheduled for 9:30am.

The next morning the meeting was held at CPS headquarters. Nine members of the parents’ group and nine city representatives came to a verbal agreement, which included the parents’ most important demands: CPS would lease the school building to a community organization for one dollar a year, and a library would be established inside the main building.

Among the parents there is much hope, but little trust. The sit-in continues until they have a written agreement, which could come at a meeting this Thursday. “They [CPS] like to deal with people who have money,” Beltran says. “But we’re Chicago Public Schools parents,” he laughs. “We don’t have money.”

At press time, neither Mayor Daley’s office, nor CPS, nor Alderman Solis had responded to requests for comment in this article; what happened on the other side of the negotiation, especially within CPS, is unclear.

Confirming the web of influence that the Whittier parents allege has dominated decision making around their children’s education would require a thorough investigation into TIF funding records, something no major media outlet has attempted. But the parents have documented their interactions carefully, and their story of broken promises checks out.

They point to public statements made about the structure of the building for which documents have never been produced, and they cite contradicting statements on over 60 videotapes recording their interactions with elected officials and CPS representatives that they have compiled. The pattern that emerges shows a group of parents ignored by a system with a very different model of educational success.

Renaissance 2010 was announced in 2004 as an effort to open new schools, with a new emphasis on quantifiable results and increased options for families that amounted to an upheaval of the core ideas of public education. Schools with unorthodox structures, including low student-to-teacher ratios, were “underutilizing” district resources, and were shut down as part of a shift toward charter schools. Huberman has no background in education, having worked as a police officer before heading the Chicago Transit Authority and serving as Mayor Daley’s chief of staff. His recent decision to step down as CPS CEO has reopened the debate on CPS financial and organizational structure.

On one level the current design set up by Renaissance 2010 is pragmatic. New enrollment options give parents and students more choices, and direct resources towards skills that are in high demand. But there are other effects. Charter schools often have longer school days, different class schedules, and a need to let teachers go if they aren’t right for the job, all of which make it much harder for teachers to unionize, and put more power in the hands of administration and CPS. Where the practical interests of parents and students and a school system racked with deficits come together is sometimes in conflict with big picture community interests. In the case of Whittier’s funding woes, Santos sees at least one connection to recent developments. “I don’t know what future plans are for the school, but there’s an empty police station next door with money signs written all over it. Whittier is sitting on a goldmine.” The struggle over the field house may have much broader implications.

But the biggest concern for the parents’ committee has been the silence that a supposedly open system seems to instill, and regardless of what happens in Thursday’s meeting, they see a change there. “I started this work with closed eyes,” says Gonzalez. “I had no idea what was behind CPS, the aldermen, the power they have. It turned a switch on forever. It showed me I have to watch these people. Life shouldn’t be like this,” she says, tears falling. “You have to fight.” Beltran is calmer, but he has the same tone. “Everything is politics… It’s a rebellion, yes, but this too is part of politics.”

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