Last year, parents, students, and community activists occupied the fieldhouse of Whittier Elementary School, located at 1900 West 23rd Street in Pilsen on the South Side of Chicago when the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system planned to demolish it and lay down artificial turf for the construction of an athletic field. The parents and community activists wanted the $354,000 budgeted for demolition costs to instead be spent on renovating the building to house a library.
The sit-in began on Wednesday, September 15, 2010. On the third day of the sit-in, Friday, September 17th, there was a six-hour stand-off between parents and community activists inside the field house and CPS officials and police officers outside. According to Sun-Times staff reporter Maudylne Ihejikika, community activist Gema Gaete told CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond, “Just because we live in an economically challenged neighborhood doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the right to the same resources as anyone else.”
Ms. Bond was quoted in the Sun-Times article “Pilsen residents fight City Hall”as saying “It would probably cost two or three times that amount to renovate, and with the current budget constraints, we have no funding sources right now that we can count on.” An article by Mike Puccinelli, Mai Martinez, Roseanne Tellez, and Suzanne Le Mignot (“Parents Sit In To Save Pilsen School Building: Whittier School Field House Is Slated For Demolition; Parents Want Library”), posted on the Web site for CBS2 (formerly WBBM) on September 17th related that the community activists believed renovating the field house to turn it into a library would cost under $25,000, and they had even found contractors who offered to do it for nothing.
Ms. Bond said, “We have a structural engineer’s report which states that the building is unsafe and recommends that it not be occupied.” The parents produced a structural engineer’s report of their own that indicated the roof needed to be replaced, but the building was otherwise “salvageable with minimal investment” (in the words of Ms. Ihejikika).
According to an article by Alejandra Cancino (“Field house face-off: Pilsen parents continue sit-in to save building at Whittier Elementary School”) published in the Chicago Tribune on September 21, 2010, the engineer’s report produced for the parents and activists was conducted by the firm, Ingenii LLC, and dated September 3rd. It stated “with the exception of the roof, the structure is in good condition and suitable for continued use.” The CPS countered with a report from the engineering firm, Perry & Associates LLC, dated September 14th, the conclusion of which was that the field house was unsafe because it suffered from “substantial structural and architectural defects.”
According to an article by Evelyn Holmes (“Pilsen school parents protest for 6th day”) posted on the Web site of ABC7 (formerly WLS), on September 21, 2010, the protesters accused “25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis of turning his back on residents after parents say he promised to support efforts to upgrade and expand Whittier using tax increment funds (TIF) after the Benito Juarez High School renovation.” They contended that he made a mere 5% of the TIF funds available. The alderman’s chief of staff, Vince Sanchez, replied, “The Benito Juarez expansion just got completed in September of this year . And the TIF has to be replenished as far as funding.”
The protestors had also contacted legislators in the Illinois General Assembly. State Representative Edward Acevedo promised to help find money to renovate the field house, according to Ms. Ihejikika’s article.
On the morning of Friday, September 17, 2010, Chicago police officers blocked off the streets around Whittier Elementary School and Ms. Bond persuaded the protestors to let children evacuate the fieldhouse. CPS officials and the protestors reached an impasse over demands by protestors that CPS CEO Ron Huberman meet them. Eventually, Ms. Bond conveyed a commitment from Huberman to meet them the following week and not to demolish the fieldhouse until then.
The protestors asked for the commitment in writing. Ms. Bond said she could not do so, and the protestors replied in that case they could not vacate the premises. Ms. Bond announced they were at a stalemate and departed, at which point other CPS officials tacked “No Trespassing” signs everywhere.
The police gave the protestors a deadline of 2:45 to leave the premises. School let out as the deadline passed and more than 100 students, teachers, and parents pushed past police barricades, shouting “Si Puedo!” Roughly translated, that means “If I can!” Police and CPS officials withdrew, and the crowd shouted “We won!”
Ms. Ihejikika quoted protestor Evelin Santos, “We stuck together and won!” She declared, “We’re going to stay here until we get our letter of commitment!”
CBS2 covered the sixth day of the sit-in on September 20, 2010 on the early morning news broadcast. At a quarter to six o’clock in the morning, some parents and activists were sitting outside the fieldhouse, while more adults and children were asleep inside. Reporter Mike Puccinelli in the field relayed that Gema Gaete would lead a press conference later at 10: 30 a.m.
On Tuesday, September 21st the Chicago Sun-Times published an article by Kim Janssen, “Pilsen sit-in enters Day 6,” in which she reported that on Monday Alderman Solis announced Huberman had promised CPS would not demolish the field house before he met with protestors. However, the protestors said they would not vacate the property before the meeting, which CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond stipulated was a precondition for the meeting to take place.
Kim Janssen quoted Ms. Bond as saying, “Despite our warnings, they are assuming the safety and security risk for the children and adults staying there.” She said, “There’s no rush to demolish.”
Araceli Gonzalez, whose ten-year-old daughter is a Whittier student, said, “We’re going to stay here as long as it takes.” She told the Sun-Times, “We’ve got inflatable mattresses, bathrooms, food and support from the community – everything we need. Our children deserve a library.”
Ms. Janssen related that the protestors said they have found union workers willing to turn the old field house into a library, gratis. She quoted Gema Gaeta as having said, “We’ve got Huberman paying attention, now.” Ms. Gaete continued, “They have to listen to us now.”
In the summer of 2001, Ms. Gaete had participated in a hunger strike to spur officials to allocate funds to construct a high school, according to a front page article by Hank Beckett in the Northern Star published on September 24, 2001 (“SA senate speaker resigns”). [The Northern Star is the student-run newspaper of Northern Illinois University (NIU).] She gave an interview to explain that this experience had led her to resign her post as Speaker of the Student Senate of NIU so she could devote more time to community activism. Back then, she was known as Gema Gaete—Tapia.
On Friday, October 1st the sit-in at the Whittier fieldhouse, which CPS declared unsafe, entered its 16th day. Several dozen protestors remained camped inside the field house (dubbed “La Casita,” which means “the small house”). Neighborhood parent Evelin Santos said, “If we have to, we are going to stay through winter.”
In an article by Rosalind Rossi published by the Chicago Sun-Times on Saturday, October 2nd (“Sit-in parents set for long winter”), Ms. Rossi described the protestors encamped in the field house as “Surrounded by pots of food and refrigerators filled with milk and pop.” She quoted Eveiln Santos as saying, “We’re here, and we’re going to stay here until we get the library the way we want it.”
The fieldhouse had been used in the past by parents as a parent center; a classroom for adults taking GED, ESL, and sewing classes; a daycare center; and tutoring center for Whittier students. They want to continue to use the field house as a multipurpose facility, and add a school library.
Officials of the Chicago Teachers Union dropped off several hundred books on October 1st for a makeshift library protestors made inside the field house last week. The library is decorated with curtains and furnished with donated bookshelves.
Lois Basil, a mother of two with (at least one) student at Lane Tech High School (Lane Technical College Prep High School) donated $50 for the library. Ms. Rossi quoted her as saying, “Both my children had libraries in their schools. It’s unconscionable to me that they don’t have a library.”
CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond stated that as a result of requests from parents of Whittier students, $1,000,000 had been invested in improvements to the school thus far. One such improvement was a parent room Eveiln Santos contends is too small. Ms. Bond placed the problem at Whittier in broader context with her revelation that 160 Chicago Public Schools lack libraries.
It was apparent by this point that the protestors desired the field house be converted into more than a library for grade school students. At least some of the services the parents had organized for themselves in the field house, and which they wish to continue, would have been provided early in the 20th Century in park fieldhouses by the South Park Commission, and early on by its successor agency, the Chicago Park District. The services also would have been offered by Hull House and other settlement homes. Some larger churches or other religious institutions may offer a similarly wide spectrum of social services. It is obvious that the residents of Pilsen (or at least this part of Pilsen in question) have needs that are not being met. Neighborhood residents are filling the vacuum themselves, and require a multipurpose facility in which to work.
On Monday, October 4, 2010, Peoples Gas shutoff the flow of gas to the Whittier fieldhouse as part of the CPS plan to demolish the building. Two days later, in a measure co-sponsored by Aldermen Ed Burke – far and away the city’s most powerful alderman – and Danny Solis, the Chicago City Council ordered immediate restoration of gas. On Friday, October 8th, Peoples Gas restored the flow of gas to the building and thus heat and hot water.
The next day, the Chicago Sun-Times published another article on the sit-in by Education Reporter Rosalind Rossi (“Protesters unmoved by CPS concession”). She related that in his Thursday letter, Huberman explained he delayed the building’s demolition to “give sufficient time to meet with representatives of the Whittier community and plan the future of the building.”
Ms. Bond told the press, “At this point, we are willing to say we won’t demolish the building for six months.” She said, “These are small steps, but we need to work toward a workable solution.”
Araceli Gonzalez, a Whittier parent, described Huberman’s offer as “a slap in the face.” She told Ms. Rossi that until Huberman made a written commitment to convert the field house into a library, “We’re here to the end.”
In a radio news story on WBBM AM 820 on Saturday, October 9th the protesters were said to be demanding not only that Huberman visit them in person, but Mayor Richard Daley do so as well.
At the meeting of the CPS Board held on Wednesday, October 27, 2010, Huberman presented a plan under which CPS would meet all but one of the demands of Whittier Elemetary School parents and Pilsen community activists, according to an article by Maudlyne Ihejirka (“CPS agrees to most Whittier sit-in demands, but not all”) published in the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday, October 28th.
Under this plan, the Whittier fieldhouse would not be demolished and replaced with artificial turf athletic field. CPS would have the structure re-evaluated and work with elected officials who found TIF money to repair the building. Parents would control the field house, as CPS would lease it for the nominal fee of $1 per year to the Whittier Parent Committee (WPC) as soon as it incorporated as a non-profit organization.
The one demand the protestors made that would not be met under this plan was the construction of a school library within the fieldhouse. Instead a library would be built within the school building itself.
Parents had claimed the school building was too small to have a library built inside it, although this would have provided more space in the field house for the “parent center” the protestors wanted so they could formally continue the informal arrangement they formerly had in which students could be tutored and adults could take ESL and sewing classes.
The two sides were scheduled to meet again on Friday, October 29, 2010. The occupation lasted for forty-three days.
On Thursday, June 16, 2011, the WPC issued “an immediate call to action.” It read, in part, “We are currently facing a new CPS Chief Executive Officer as well as a new Board of Ed. While the Whittier Parents wish to work with the new administration to implement their agreement with CPS, the latter has made decisions regarding the future of the library at Whittier without the parents’ input. They have overridden the parents’ unequivocal dissent and decided to construct the library inside the main school building, something the parents have vehemently opposed due to the already overcrowded conditions. Such a plan would require the demolition of special education space, resulting in the displacement of students. This action threatens to throw everything the parents and allies have worked and fought for out the window. The Whittier Parent Committee in conjunction with students, community members and a design advocacy group has created an award winning design proposal to renovate La Casita into an accessible and green building for a library, but no one in the new CPS administration or Board of Ed has given the parents an opportunity to present their proposal. CPS may start implementing their plan to demolish the special education space in the next few days, and we must act quickly to ensure that students are not displaced and that the Whittier Parent Committee has their voices heard.”
On Tuesday, June 28, 2011, WBBM reported “The sit-in by parents at Whittier Elementary School in Pilsen will continue, even though it will mean no library will be built for students for the coming school year.” The new CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard “set a construction deadline for the library last week, saying if pickets remained by Tuesday, the Board of Education would not attempt to build a library in the school this summer.”
The protestors argued it was irrational to build the proposed library in a schoolroom needed by special education students. Further, the library would be built to accommodate wheelchairs but would be located on the second floor of a building that had neither an elevator nor a wheelchair lift. They argued if the fieldhouse was remodeled, it could accommodate a library twice as large and would be fully accessible.
They met face-to-face with Brizard at a hastily-called meeting on the afternoon of Monday, June 27, 2011. There was no agreement at the end of the meeting, though the two sides subsequently corresponded.
The WPC donated architectural plans for reconstruction of the fieldhouse and said they had volunteer labor ready to help remodel the fieldhouse, a project they estimated would cost $750,000. They also said they have identified $560,000 through a state grant obtained by State Representative Edward Acevedo (D-Chicago) and TIF funds.
On Tuesday, June 28, 2011, Gema Gaete said the group would undertake a fundraising drive if the fieldhouse would be remodeled as a library and La Casita community center.
The WPC wanted the CPS Board of Education to pay the balance through its capital budget. In a letter to the parents, Brizard said that $150,000 had been spent on conversion of the classroom to a library.
On Wednesday, June 29, 2011, WBBM posted a Sun-Times Media Wire (Chicago Sun-Times) story (“Whittier Parents Succeed In Blocking New Library”) that stated “Pilsen parents who once staged a 43-day sit-in to get a library at Whittier Elementary School now have succeeded in getting the project halted.”
“As a result of your continued opposition in allowing us access to the school, we have no other choice than to cancel construction of the library project this summer,” Brizard wrote in a letter to the WPC.
CPS officials said the weeklong delay in construction cost the cash-strapped district about $150,000 and “the protest group’s ever-shifting demands have frustrated district leaders,” according to the Sun-Times Media Wire (STMW) story.
According to the STMW story, the WPC at the time accepted the new CPS plan to “spare a nearby field house from demolition” and to build a library inside the school building, “so long as the library was not constructed in newly rehabbed areas of the school.” However, “as the district tried to begin construction of the $400,000 library last week, some parents, community agitators and leftist activists from across the city converged on the neighborhood, blocking construction crews from entering the school.”
The author or authors of the article wrote, “Protesters said a library inside the school would displace special education classes — an assertion CPS denies. Instead, the group asked the district to support an estimated $750,000 project to transform the run-down, one-story field house into a parent center and library. And the group recently added a new demand: That CPS pay part of the cost of the field house project.”
This new demand “has led some to wonder whether the library was ever the issue and whether the dispute would ever be resolved.” The author of authors of the STMW article quoted Phil Mullins, Chief Operating Officer (COO) at the United Neighborhood Organization, which the author or authors described as “the influential Latino group that runs a network of charter schools.”
“Pilsen has a strong history of community activism,” said Mullins. “But what you also have is some folks who see Pilsen as a place to work out an ideological agenda that’s measured not by accomplishments but by rhetoric. It’s unfortunate that people don’t know when to declare victory and take the good.”
The author or authors of the STMW article wrote, “Some have questioned who is behind the Whittier Parents Committee. Last week, seven mothers were among 30 protesters, who included members of the Chicago Teachers Union.”
That would mean that at least on that day, less than one-third of the protestors were parents of children in Whittier Elementary School. How deep is the support for this protest movement amongst actual parents of Whittier students?
The author or authors of the STMW article wrote, “One of the group’s key backers, Cuahutemoc ‘Temoc’ Morfin, said the group has about 30 school parents who indirectly support the cause. About 13 moms have participated in the sit-ins, he said.”
That still doesn’t suggest deep support amongst parents of children in Whittier Elementary School. Broader community support could be as deep as the foundations of the Sears Tower, but it is the opinion of the parents of Whittier schoolchildren that really matters.
The journalist or journalists who wrote the STMW article pointed out “Morfin is also involved in local politics. He forced 25th Ward Ald. Danny Solis into a runoff in April, although Solis won re-election.” Clearly, this is a man with a certain amount of political ambition and with a political agenda.
Why wasn’t he mentioned before in news media accounts of the protest in 2010? The matter had drawn the attention of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and local TV stations.
The journalist or journalists who wrote the STMW article added that “the three leading spokeswomen for the cause are activists Carolina Gaete, a director with grassroots community organizer Blocks Together; and Gema Gaete and Evelin Santos, who once worked for the Pilsen Alliance, an organization that has advocated for blue-collar immigrants in the neighborhood.”
The article includes a quote from Gema Gaete. “‘I’m not the organizer,’ says Gema Gaete, who bristles at the idea that activists are spurring the effort. ‘The parents are the bosses. We just pose the questions.’”
According to the STMW story, “Whittier parents started agitating seven years ago for renovations at the school. CPS would not approve a 10-room expansion the parents wanted, which would have cost about $15 million. So the group appealed to Solis, who allocated $1.7 million in TIF funds,the lion’s share of which went to pay for a cafeteria expansion, new science and computer labs, and a parent room that was completed in 2009.”
The STMW story also states “The group began its 2010 sit-in after learning CPS planned to demolish the field house and replace it with a soccer field to be used by the neighboring Cristo Rey, a private Jesuit high school.” This was the first I learned of what had been previously referred to as an athletic field rather than specifically as a soccer field being built for the benefit of the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School rather than Whittier Elementary School.
The journalist or journalists who wrote the STMW article quoted the aforementioned Whittier mother Araceli Gonzalez. “So we said, ‘Why are you going to demolish the field house and why are you going to build a soccer field here for a private school?’”
The STMW article traced how the WPC arrived at this emotionally charged place. “Angry at what it saw as broken promises by the district and elected officials, the group hardened its stand. Members tape conversations with district officials and show up at every school board meeting, often with complaints or protests. And sometimes they turn on each other — as they did at this week’s meeting with Brizard, confused over whether a previous agreement with the district called for CPS to pay for the field house renovation.”
Then, “after they had occupied the field house for a week in a second sit-in, the group met with Brizard, who attempted to address their concerns. He explained that special education students are integrated in classrooms and would not be displaced by a library. He also said the school would still have space for special ed students to meet in smaller group sessions.”
This would seem to overcome all their objections except for the lack of an elevator or wheelchair lift. One should pause to wonder, though, if special ed students (and all other students) are best served by their integration in regular classrooms, rather than being taught in dedicated classrooms or dedicated schools, though so broad a philosophical issue and educational policy is would be unlikely to be decided by Brizard.
According to the STMW article, the WPC “told Brizard they would allow library construction to begin if Brizard would reiterate that explanation in writing. But in a press release a few hours later, they added the demand for CPS to help fund the fieldhouse renovation.”
It was then that CPS officials stopped the Whittier Elementary School library construction project. The journalist or journalists who wrote the STMW article finished with a quote from Ms. Gaete. “‘Thank you for putting the project on hold,’ Gema Gaete said. ‘That’s what we were asking for.’”
I have found no sign of any subsequent development. In the U.S., we are spending more and more on education, yet our students are slipping farther and farther behind their peers in other sovereign states. We are receiving diminishing returns on our investment in the educational development of our students – on the future students of our body politic. Clearly, we need to overhaul our whole educational system.
The elementary, middle, and high school districts are too numerous and too top heavy. The standards they set for students are too low and too ideologically-driven.
Parents shouldn’t be treating schools as daycare centers. In this case, community residents who don’t even have children in a school shouldn’t hold up the construction of a school library because they want the school district to help them build a community center.
However vital to the community that community center seems, there has to be a better way to get it new housing. It is the schoolchildren who are losing out.
We also shouldn’t be pressuring so many teenagers whose interests would be better served by attending trade or technical schools to instead attend colleges. More high schools should be trade or technical schools.
We shouldn’t be encouraging so many young people to finance college educations with college loans. Too many of them graduate with crushing debt burdens and do not find jobs sufficiently remunerative to pay off those loans in a timely manner.
Further, too many of our universities, colleges, and trade schools have departments and programs which knowingly train more young people to do specific jobs than there are jobs available. Employers also shouldn’t be demanding prospective employees have college degrees to perform jobs that do not require such levels of education.