Parents occupy school fieldhouse to stop demolition and demand a library
Friday, September 24 is day ten of an sit-in at the Whittier Elementary School field house in southwest Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. Residents of the predominantly Mexican, working class neighborhood have a long history of struggling for their rights. Like many of those struggles, this occupation came to a head after many years of organizing and fighting. Parents at Whittier Elementary school first got organized in 2003 and have been working to improve their school ever since.
In addition to putting up a fight against everything from unsafe levels of asbestos and lead to overcrowding at school, the parents at Whittier have worked hard to build a strong learning community by having programs for both students and parents.
The field house has been an essential part of this effort. At "La Casita" as it is called, community members could take free English classes, GED classes, and get other important family support. With a school that didn't even have enough space for a library, this was also the only place where parents could meet and organize. So when the Chicago Public Schools announced that it was going to demolish rather than fix up the field house, parents decided they couldn't sit back and allow all that they had worked for to be taken away.
On September 15th, a group of mothers decided to occupy the field house and demand that it instead be turned into a much-needed library for their children. With the support of other parents, students, teachers and community activists, they set up beds and took over the building. The following night, Police attempted to enter the building and evict them. But the Whittier Warriors fought back. They pushed the police back and secured the doors shut. When some parents and children had to leave in the morning of September 17, another stand off between the community and police ensued.
Police blocked off the street and surrounded the field house, intending to break the power of the community occupation. About 30 supporters and a handful of TV cameras and reporters held their ground to bear witness to any action the police might take against the parents and children inside the field house. For hours, a standoff continued where the police and CPS security blocked the media and all food from entering the building. But the families inside stood strong.
Then, at 2:45pm, more and more parents began to congregate outside the school as the students began to be let out of class. Everyone knew this was our chance to take on the police and defend the occupation. Flyers explaining the the occupation and its demands were passed out amongst the rest of the parents and students, banners in support of the occupation were set up, and soon a mass of people gathered in front of the police who stood standing blocking the street that led to the field house. It started with a trickle but soon everyone, children and adults alike, were ducking under the police tape and marching to the field house, bags of food in hand. "Si se puede, Si se puede" rang out as the police slowly retreated from the entrance of the field house and left the area. The siege had been broken!
Stronger than ever, with other community organizations and the Chicago Teachers Union as their allies, the occupation continues until the community's demands are met.
The following is the public letter of support for the occupation. To learn learn more about the struggle or how you can support the Whittier Parents' Committee, please visit their website at www.saveourcenter.com.
Statement of Solidarity with the Whittier Parents Committee
Stop the Demolition of the Whittier Field House in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen!
The Whittier Parents Committee is staging a sit-in to fight against the demolition of the Whittier Dual Language School’s field house. The sit-in has been widely reported as the struggle of a community against the blind austerity cuts instituted by a cash-strapped school board. But in fact this struggle brings to light larger and more contentious issues in Chicago and nationally: control over Tax Increment Funding and the top-down reshaping of public education. The Whittier Parents’ Committee have been organizing for seven years to push Pilsen alderman Daniel Solis to allocate some of the estimated $1 billion in Mayor Daley’s TIF coffers to their school for a school expansion – he finally agreed to give $1.4million of TIF funds for school renovation. Cynically, CPS has earmarked a part of this money for the destruction of the school’s field house, which has been used for years as a center for community organizing and services. This would directly undermine the ability of the Whittier community to organize and struggle for educational rights. Parents are demanding to be part of the decision-making process.
CPS has been conducting an extreme makeover of public education: privatization, demolitions, school closures and turnarounds, massive firings of seasoned teachers have been part of the large-scale redesign of public education. Public funds are being used to renovate schools that are privatized, while low income neighborhood schools are being starved of the most basic resources. The fight over the survival of this little field house is an important one in the larger struggles around educational rights, community self-determination and control over public land and institutions.
The undersigned organizations and individuals support the demands of the Whittier Parents’ Committee!
1. Do not demolish the field house – use the same $354,000 allocated to demolish the field house to remodel the building and expand the programs offered, including a school library
2. Work with parents and the local community instead of imposing a top-down vision for the school