For nearly two weeks, dozens of parents at Whittier Elementary School in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood have occupied “La Casita”, the fieldhouse and community space adjacent to the school that’s divided parents against administrators for over a year. In 2009, they learned that $350,000 of the $1.3 million in tax money the City of Chicago was using to renovate the school had instead been allocated to the building’s demolition. The saga started seven years ago, when parents and community members started lobbying Alderman Danny Solis to cull money from city coffers in order to fund a school expansion for the already-crowded campus.
When parents saw that La Casita was slated to be demolished, they were appalled. “The fieldhouse is a great space to have,” Lisa Angones, mother of students in 6th and 7th grade at Whittier, told ColorLines on Friday. Angones plans to spend this weekend sleeping in La Casita in protest. “The funds that they want to use to knock down the school could easily be spent to make it into a library.”
While the city maintains that La Casita is structurally unfit to safely handle occupants, inspectors hired by the community say that with the exception of a leaky roof, La Casita is perfectly safe.
Parents and community supporters have secured dozens of volunteer contractors, day laborers and other folks willing to lend a helping hand to ensure that the community institution stay intact. Book donations have started flooding the school, and supporters stood in solidarity with parents as they marched from La Casita to Alderman Solis’ office on Friday morning.
“We can petition the powers that be to do what they can with their resources, but a big part of action is doing what you can on the ground,” added Nate Goldbaum of the Chicago Teachers Union, himself a former Whittier teacher.
Goldbaum also noted the parallels between the La Casita struggle and the current trends in school reform, in Chicago and throughout the country. Reformers in some school districts would rather start from scratch than take the time to repair existing foundation — with structures and with teachers. Often, while it’s easier to hire new teachers every ten years, the students are the ones who end up getting hurt, he said. Indeed, the frustration that Whittier parents are struggling with is reflected throughout the country with school closings, teacher layoffs and school board cutbacks.
Though parents have amassed hundreds of supporters through their Facebook page and an online petition, they still have yet to talk to Alderman Solis. Still, parents and supporters maintain hope that the Chicago Public Schools will eventually decide in their favor. If not, they’re prepared to continue the fight. “We will not give up that easily,” Angones said as she prepared to spend yet another night in La Casita.