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Whittier Elementary Fri Jun 24 2011
By Kelsey Duckett
Sit-ins have resumed at Whittier Elementary School in the Pilsen community on Chicago's South Side after Chicago Public School officials backed out on a promise to save the school's fieldhouse known as "La Casita."
After Wednesday's monthly CPS board meeting, in which the board decided to construct the anticipated library inside the school, as opposed to having discussions with the community about building a new community center and library where the fieldhouse is located, community members and parents at Whittier Elementary School found themselves back at square one on Thursday morning when construction crews arrived with a dumpster to be placed next to the school so construction could begin.
A handful of dedicated parents and advocates spent the night at the fieldhouse on Wednesday, knowing full well if they left, their voice would be taken away. CPS officials also camped out in their cars, and community advocate Sarah Jane Rhee said the officials were "hoping we would eventually leave."
That didn't happen. And after Waste Management arrived with the dumpster, parents formed a picket line to prevent the company from gaining access. This led to a stand-off and eventually a complaint that was filed by CPS officials to the Chicago Police Department.
The Chicago Police Department did not return phone calls for comment.
This is familiar territory for mothers of Whittier children. Carolina Gaete, a supporter, said that in the fall of 2010, they occupied the fieldhouse for 43 days after the mothers and the community first learned of CPS plans to demolish the building and replace it with a soccer field for the neighboring Cristo Rey, a private Jesuit high school.
On Thursday, it all came to a head as a group of 30 protestors stood in the parking lot with a police bus parked in its entrance and a half dozen officers congregating on the sidewalk. There were several more squad cars lining the street — the threat was arrest.
But the group wasn't phased, and proceeded with chants of, "What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now."
CPS spokesman Franklin Shuftan e-mailed this statement on behalf of the district yesterday:
Today, a Chicago Public Schools contractor erected fencing around a portion of Whittier School that will allow for construction of a new library for Whittier School students. We are excited that this long anticipated project has begun. The library will provide a great place for children to enhance their learning opportunities. Construction of the library within Whittier will honor a commitment made by CPS to the Whittier community last year and we believe placement of the library within the school is the best option for the students. Because of the construction activity that will be taking place, it was necessary to fence off an area of the school property to avoid the potential for injury. We will continue working with the Whittier community on related issues, such as the pending lease of the Whittier Field House to the Whittier Parent Committee.
CPS did not return phone calls for comment.
Gaete said the biggest issue here is inconsistency, which has led to a general mistrust of CPS.
"They don't care about us," she said. "They tell us one thing and do the other. It is the same story with them, and we are fed up. We will not back down."
Shortly after 2pm, a fence was erected by members of an unknown union, and Waste Management's truck was turned away to cheers from the rowdy group.
"This is a small win," Rhee said. "The first step was preventing CPS from beginning construction and getting the dumpster to the building."
The group isn't planning on leaving anytime soon, and will be occupying the fieldhouse until a they are heard and a resolution is reached.
"We are not going anywhere," Rhee said. "We are not just going to let CPS push us to the side. We won't let them get away with this — we were promised a discussion, and we want that."
Evelin Santos, an organizer for the Whittier Parent Committee, said the whole process has been frustrating, but she said the group will not show any signs up backing down.
The Whittier Parent Committee delivered a letter to Ald. Danny Solis office on Thursday morning requesting a meeting and his support.
"We want the alderman to meet with our parents," Rhee said. "We asked his office to respond to us by Thursday, June 23" so that the meeting could be put on the alderman's schedule as soon as possible.
Santos said the group will hold their ground, and will demand a voice.
"They have not sat with us, they have not heard us," she said. "Again, they are making a non-educated decision, they are supposed to be professionals. We will be here every day until an agreement is reached."
Kelsey Duckett is a freelance journalist. Photo by David Schalliol.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.