Last night (Friday, Feb 17) at approximately 8:00 pm, I received an alert notifying me that parents, teachers, and students at Brian Piccolo Elementary School in Humboldt Park, a predominantly lower-income Puerto Rican and African American neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, had occupied their school in order to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plans to “turn around” Piccolo Elementary by firing all current staff (not only teachers and Piccolo’s new less-than-a-year-old principal, but also all custodial, security and cafeteria staff) and handing the school over to the controversial Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a Chicago-based charter school corporation founded by venture capitalist Martin J. Koldyke in 2001.
After quickly stopping in Bridgeport in order to pick up some colleagues, I proceeded to Humboldt Park in order to observe the school occupation and talk to the local community about the situation at Piccolo Elementary.
At approximately 9:15 pm, en rout to Piccolo by car but still several blocks away, my colleagues and I pulled over to the side of the road in order to make way for roughly ten police cars as they blazed past us, sirens blaring, also headed to the elementary school. Sirens could be heard approaching the area from a number of directions.
A block away from the school, we were prevented from driving any closer by a police blockade. As I exited the car (which my colleagues went on to park several blocks away) a police officer threatened to ticket me for obstructing traffic. There was no traffic to obstruct, and in any event, the police blockade itself was providing a much more effective and permanent obstruction to traffic than the five seconds it took me to get out of our car. As I continued to approach Piccolo on foot, a second officer attempted to dissuade me from proceeding any closer by explaining, “This is an unsafe neighborhood and you don’t belong here.” I responded, “If that’s the case, then I’d better stick close to you guys”, before continuing on my way.
When I reached Piccolo Elementary, I found a group of approximately sixty demonstrators standing in front of the entrance to the school, blocking the police from entering. Approximately twenty police officers stood directly across the sidewalk facing the demonstrators, while many more officers stood further away, surrounding the area and blockading the surrounding streets. Many of these demonstrators standing outside were not themselves directly affiliated with Piccolo Elementary, but had come to show solidarity with the parents, teachers, and students of Piccolo, as well as several local religious and community leaders, most of whom were then inside of the school. One of the demonstrators, an articulate woman in her mid-twenties, explained to me in great detail that she was in Humboldt Park that evening because she was well acquainted with AUSL and the Chicago charter school initiative more generally, and believed that the privatization of Chicago’s public schools (which has been well-demonstrated to be ineffective in actually improving the educational performance of students) amounted to nothing more than an effort by the Mayor’s office to pay back corporate campaign contributors, at the same time weakening the position of school labor by requiring school workers to work longer hours for less money in an anti-union environment: “These school turn-arounds aren’t about education. They’re about politics, and they’re about money.”
While most of the Piccolo parents, teachers and students were inside of the school, which they had locked down in order to prevent the police from entering, a few parents and community members remained outside to answer questions. I interviewed Willie Williams, a sixty year-old Humboldt Park resident whose children had attendedPiccolo Elementary, and whose grandchildren now attended the school and were presently occupying it with their parents from the inside. According to Willie, parents and teachers from several other local elementary schools also facing “turn around” were then also occupying Piccolo. Willie explained to me that the Piccolo community was angry with the Mayor because he had ordered the “turn around” of the school based on purely statistical data without ever once visiting the school or neighborhood itself in order to ask the Piccolo community what they thought about their school and its teachers. The occupiers’ single demand was that Mayor Rahm Emanuel come to the school in person in order to speak to the local community before firing all of Piccolo’s workers and handing the school over to AUSL. “This community knows its teachers and loves its teachers, and we want the Mayor to know that. Come and ask the parents. Come and ask the students. They don’t want their teachers going anywhere.” Willie also asked what the logic was behind firing Piccolo’s less-than-a-year-old principal, explaining that Piccolo students and parents felt very good about their new principal, and that she herself should be given at least a year or two turn Piccolo around before losing her job.
Willie, whose wife used to work as a custodian at Piccolo, also pointed out the absurdity of AUSL’s policy of firing all non-teacher employees in the name of improving educational performance: “What does a janitor have to do with educational performance? What does a lunch lady have to do with educational performance? These people are from our community. These people are our community. Taking away their jobs doesn’t help our community. It makes people lose their homes and apartments. If these people try to get their jobs back, AUSL will only make them work more hours for less money.”
When I asked Willie about Piccolo’s low performance on test scores, he responded, “Of course our students are failing. Our school can’t even afford to buy textbooks for our students. How are students supposed to succeed if they don’t have books? The Mayor is buying ipads for students in rich neighborhoods, but he’s leaving Piccolo to die. The Mayor wants Piccolo to fail so that he can hand it over to his friends at AUSL.” Willie suggested that the Mayor should provide adequate funding for Piccolo and other failing Humboldt Park public schools and provide them with an opportunity to turn themselves around before shutting them down.
Willie also had a few words to say about the Mayor’s general attitude toward low-income neighborhoods like Humboldt Park and the City’s disregard for Humboldt Park residents and their efforts to participate in the governance of their neighborhood: “They think we’re stupid. They think we’re ignorant. They don’t listen to us because they think we don’t know anything. But we know a whole lot more about Humboldt Park than they do. We know a whole lot more about Piccolo Elementary than they do. This is our neighborhood. This is our home. This is our school. Why won’t the City ask us what we think?” Willie also complained, “Rich people say that our schools and communities are failing because the parents don’t care. They don’t just blame the teachers. They blame the parents, and they say we’re lazy and we don’t care about getting our children a good education. But we have a hundred parents here tonight who care enough about their childrens’ education and their communities to get arrested. When we try to show them we care, they just ignore us.” When I asked Willie if he had a personal message for the Mayor, he responded, “If AUSL schools are so great, why doesn’t the Mayor put his own children in an AUSL school?”
Greg Goodman is a graduate student in history and a tenacious activist. For more lovely, local INDEPENDENT MEDIA, see the Occupied Chicago Tribune , featuring an article interviewing teachers in an AUSL school.
Note: The occupation has ended after CPS agreed to meet with community members. 500 marched on Mayor Emanuel’s home Monday. His kids went to University of Chicago Laboratory School.
Well, from Humboldt Park to Hyde Park, the Chicago Spring may be sprouting through the cracks.