Media for the 99%

“We Fought the City with Gatorade and Water”: A History of Parent Action

Rozalinda Borcilă, a member of the Whittier Occupation Solidarity Committee, speaks at a Community Open Mic on September 19, the first Sunday of the occupation started. In the background in green is Solidarity Committee member Laura Ramirez, UIC Ed PhD student, former CPS teacher and CPS parent. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee/Chicago Indymedia, Creative Commons)

Rozalinda Borcilă, a member of the Whittier Occupation Solidarity Committee, speaks at a Community Open Mic on September 19, the first Sunday of the occupation started. In the background in green is Solidarity Committee member Laura Ramirez, UIC Ed PhD student, former CPS teacher and CPS parent. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee/Chicago Indymedia, Creative Commons)

Parents and students as well as teachers were involved in the Chicago Teachers Union strike, and proved the power of direct action to get results. But for many parents of children who attend Chicago Public Schools, this was only the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle for education equality.

1994: Daley Elementary School

When parents and students arrived at Daley Elementary School in the Back of the Yards nieghborhood for the first day of the new school year, September 7, 1994, a line of yellow school buses waited in front of the building. CPS officials had closed Daley school, many parents found out that morning. The buses were to shuttle the students to Washington School, almost four miles away, in Englewood.

Parents had concerns: The other school was too far away, and students traveling could be unsafe. Most of the students were from Spanish-speaking homes, and there were no guarantees that the school would offer bilingual education. Washington School was in disrepair as well. And most of all, the community hadn’t been consulted.

Parents decided it was time to have their say. Hundreds of parents refused to put their children on the buses, and met in a church parking lot across the street to voice their concerns, formulate their demands, and debate next steps. Over the next two weeks, they talked with any politician who would listen, provided makeshift lessons to the out-of-class students, and, for a while, held daily marches to Board of Education offices.

The parents wanted a new school to be built in Back of the Yards and for the children to be accepted into other neighborhood elementary schools in the interim.

The Board of Education pledged not to buckle. The 1% Chicago Tribune editorialized against the parents. Officials threatened them with criminal charges, loss of their medical cards and food stamps, and, for those without papers, deportation. Yet still some would not quit.

For five days, five mothers staged a hunger strike outside of CPS headquarters, subsisting on only water, coffee and Gatorade. Hundreds of supporters from across Chicago joined them on the sidewalk, some hoping to take the lesson back to their own neighborhoods. Passersby honked for the huelga (strike).

On the morning of September 26, the school board summoned them back in for a final round of talks. At 9 p.m., after 11 hours of negotiation, Mayor Daley sent in then-Board President Gery Chico with an offer.

The following Monday, the 91 students started school in nearby Chavez Elementary and in 1997 a new Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy opened its doors. It stands today along a line of green trees and a public park at Wolcott Avenue and 50th Street.

2005: Social Justice High School

The high school in Little Village was opened in 2005 after 14 parents went on a hunger strike to demand that CPS build a school in their community. Founders established the school on four core beliefs: “truth and transparency, struggle and sacrifice, ownership and agency, and collective and community power.” Regarded as a model of social justice education, the school’s curriculum takes up issues of race, gender, equality, and respect for the environment.

2010: Whittier Elementary

Parents occupied a field house near the school that was being used as a community space after officials announced plans to raze it to build a soccer field for a neighboring private school. The sit-in lasted on-and-off for more than a month before the parents and CPS came to an agreement that would keep the field house, known as “La Casita,” open.

2012: Piccolo Elementary

When the Board of Education slated this West Side elementary school for “turnaround” by the politically connected Academy for Urban School Leadership, parents and students decided to draw from the lessons of the Occupy movement. Surrounded by police, Occupy Chicago demonstrators complete with tents, and other allies, about a dozen parents and supporters stayed in the building overnight and won a meeting with Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. But in the end, the board voted to close the school anyway.

2012: Social Justice High School

Hundreds of students at Social Justice, building on the school’s radical history, held a sit-in to protest the firing of two teachers who were founding members of the school. Both teachers were reinstated later that month, but the struggle is ongoing. Parents and students are demanding new contracts for fired staff (including a former principal), the reinstatement of AP classes, the empowerment of a local school council, and an apology.

By Nick Burt and Rosa Trakhtensky

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