Latina moms take on Chicago Public Schools—and win

On September 15 of this year, police surrounded a field house at Whittier Dual-Language Elementary School in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Andy Donakowski of In These Timesreports that the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) had made plans to tear it down, but parents and residents of this Mexican-American community were determined to save the building. Over 100 community members pushed past police barricades in support of the activists. The police gave up and left.

According to Donakowski, for many years, the field house, affectionately known as “La Casita,” had served as an informal community center for GED courses, ESL, and even sewing classes. The parents not only wanted to save the building but also create a library for Whittier School, which had none. They had met with school officials multiple times before September but got nowhere. They had fought for seven years for an expansion of the school and won over a million for renovations, but then they were in disbelief when CPS decided to use a portion of that money to take precious space away from them. CPS argued the building was structurally unsafe and converting it into a library would be too costly—an argument the residents found to be untrue.

Determined to keep the field house, a group of working Latina moms began a 24-hour sit-in to keep the field house from being razed. The group also demanded the Chicago City Council and the Chicago Public School system answer for over a million dollars in misspent public funds earmarked for Whittier School. CPS responded, by turning off the gas—the heat and hot water—just as the weather turned cold. This, instead of answering their questions about the completed renovations to Whittier Elementary, responding to their requests for a meeting, or building them a library. Eventually, CPS relented and restored the gas and water. While occupying the field house, the mothers began to receive donations of books and shelves from across the city and began a small library. The moms spelled each other and the community kept them supplied with food.

On October 19, 36 days after the sit in began, CPS CEO Ron Huberman finally granted the parents a meeting. He agreed to save the field and use the $356,000 allocated for demolition to renovate the structure. He also promised to build a library inside the school and lease out the field house to the Whittier Parents Committee for a $1 annual fee. Huberman gave the parents a signed letter outlining the terms of an agreement. On October 28, the parents called off the sit-in but continue to push for “La Casita” to be converted into a library because they know there’s not enough room inside the school. Donkowski reports:

“The fight continues so that we can ensure that we have a quality education for all children!” the Whittier Parents Committee declared on October 28.

For many parents in the community, the sit-in offered a chance to educate future generations. “I’m teaching [my kids that] they need to stand up for their rights,” says parent Araceli Gonzalez. ”If they see other people that are trying to get something good for them, go ahead and help.”

But it was also a learning opportunity for Gonzalez. ”I’m forty-six-years-old and I’ve never done this in my life,” she says.  ”It’s never too late to start.

On a personal note, about twenty years ago I lived in the Pilsen neighborhood. At that time I was touched by the fierce devotion the Mexican American residents had to their families, their children, and to their community. Above all, they desperately wanted their kids to get a good education. It was that strong sense of community and purpose that allowed them to spontaneously organize the sit-in at Whittier and then support each other for over a month. They were afraid but did it anyway. I’m not surprised they had the courage to go up against CPS, and I’m not surprised they won.