Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Parents Enroll in Protest

Susan Notes:

Up with Parents.
There are more stories about the valiant stand-off at Whittier Elementary:

Whittier Library Holds Out... Chicago Teachers Union officers to donate books

Parents Fight for School Library [photo]

Chicago Board of Education officials continue to lie as standoff moves into second week

Community breaks police blockade, 'Camp Whittier' gets a second night to demand a library for the children

Stay tuned for information on where to send the books.

by Joe Barrett

CHICAGO—Araceli Gonzalez is getting used to spending restless nights on an air mattress inside a run-down building behind her daughter's elementary school.

"They think we are going to get tired of this," she said Tuesday night, explaining her morning dashes home to prepare her children for school and herself for her job at a bank. "They're giving me more strength."

View Full Image

Daniel Shea for The Wall Street Journal

Parents and community activists, top, sit outside the building facing demolition.
.Ms. Gonzalez, 46 years old, is among dozens of parents at Whittier Dual Language School who have been holding an around-the-clock sit-in for more than two weeks to prevent the city school district from tearing down the roughly finished one-story building, which has served as a community center and after-school activity hub for decades.

School-district officials say the building, in a poor Latino neighborhood southwest of the Loop, is unsafe and would be too expensive to bring up to current building codes. "It's not even a building. It's a structure," said Monique Bond, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Public Schools. "It would need to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up."

There is no money for that, she said.

Since the protest began, the parents have been accepting donations of books and working to convert the 2,000-square-foot building into a library for the school, one of 160 in Chicago that doesn't have one. On Thursday, the parents dedicated the library, despite the orange sticker on the front door warning that the building was "Off Limits" and threatening fines of $25 to $100.

At a time of school-budget cuts and teacher layoffs, parent groups across the U.S. have marched on school-board offices, staged call-in campaigns and shouted down administrators at school-board meetings. But it is rare for parents to go to such lengths to protect something that looks from the outside like a long-deserted Pizza Hut.

The building, which dates to the mid-1800s, has been maintained haphazardly. The red metal roof is rusting. Huge broken flood lights on the roof are missing guide wires. The concrete floors have chipped paint and the walls and ceiling are neither insulated nor fireproof.

But the building has long been a focal point for the neighborhood. Rose Escobar, 55, who attended the school and later sent her children and grandchildren there, remembers playing games, carving pumpkins and having Christmas parties there.

"I hate to see it torn down," she said, as she dusted off and disinfected a set of donated encyclopedias. "I don't think it's fair to the kids at the school."

View Full Image

Daniel Shea for The Wall Street Journal

A homemade protest banner on a fence near the building.
.More recently, the building has served as a meeting place for students' mothers to take classes in sewing and English as a second language. They call it the "casita," or little house.

Fourth-grader Osvaldo De Paz said his mother has taken English classes there, while he studied English and Spanish at school. "Then it's fair," he said, as he sat doing his math homework in the building this week, "because it's more like equal."

Last year, the school district said it had received $1.4 million of funding for improvements at the school. In consultation with parents, it expanded the cafeteria, built new science and computer rooms and installed a parent meeting room. But the parents balked at the plan to spend $356,000 of the money to knock down the building.

“"I hate to see it torn down. I don't think it's fair to the kids at the school.
Rose Escobar

"We thought we could put that money to better use," said Gema Gaeta, a community organizer working with the parents. And because the school had no library, the idea emerged to create one, she said.

In a series of meetings since last November, the district and the parents failed to reach agreement. Ms. Bond said the cost of tearing down the building and replacing it with an acceptable library could be $5 million to $20 million. Parents say the $356,000 already allocated would go a long way toward upgrading the building because they can call on free labor from workers in the neighborhood.

Finally, with a looming school-district deadline for boarding up the building, parents decided to take it over on Sept. 15.

View Full Image

Daniel Shea for The Wall Street Journal

The building facing demolition.
.After initial confrontations with police and school officials, the parents have repainted the building, organized health fairs and yoga classes and slept in shifts.

"This is Chicago," said Ms. Gaeta, recalling Mayor Richard M. Daley's 2003 decision to carve giant X's in the landing strip at Meigs Field as the city slept. "Whole airports can disappear overnight."

No talks are under way between the parents and the district, which hasn't agreed to conditions set by the parents.

Meanwhile, donated books have streamed in from as far away as Minnesota and New York. A group of high-school students from New Orleans recently pledged to hold a book drive, Ms. Gaeta said.A group called the Chicago Underground Library offered expertise on cataloging and setting up the library. The parents have cataloged about 600 books in the library, and hundreds more need to be unpacked.

Osiel Gomez, 9, said he is looking forward to checking out books from the library. "We keep on reading the same books," he said of the small collection in his classroom. Asked if he had taken a peek at the offerings before the new library opened, he said, "I want to be surprised."

Write to Joe Barrett at joseph.barrett@wsj.com

— Joe Barrett
Wall Street Journal



This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.