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Whittier Elementary Thu Jul 21 2011

Broken Promises Remain as Whittier Sit-in Ends

Whittier Elementary School Occupation SignsThe sit-in is over... for now.

After 25 days, Whittier Elementary School parents and activists decided to end their sit-in, which prevented construction crews from building a new library within the school — a plan that went back on a promise made by Chicago Public School officials to build at the neighboring fieldhouse.

Though construction was prevented, and activists have decided to vacate the fieldhouse, known as "La Casita," the Whittier Parent Organization plans to continue negotiations with CPS officials to ensure the library is built outside of the school, in what will be a newly remodeled fieldhouse.

Last month, CPS was forced to halt construction plans, and eventually decided to cancel plans altogether because of the sit-in. The delays costing the district about $150,000.

The original deal made between CPS officials and the Whittier Parent Committee was reached while Mayor Richard Daley was still in office. The deal would have given community members and parents the chance to meet with officials to devise a plan that would suit both the needs of the students and the school, and would save the fieldhouse.

This promised meeting didn't take place until after the sit-in began.

This is the second, some would call, successful sit-in for the Whittier community. Last fall, they occupied the fieldhouse for 43 days when mothers and community members 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.

Both sit-ins were halted only after CPS agreed to meet with, and work with parents and the community to devise a plan that would benefit all.

It seems though that CPS has gone back on its word again.

Evelin Santos, an organizer for the group, said CPS officials have again neglected to set a time and date for a meeting to take place — something CPS assured the group would happen immediately if the sit-in was called off.

"We are at a loss," Santos said. "On Friday it will be two weeks, and we still have heard nothing from CPS — and we even sent a letter requesting a meeting at their request. We are frustrated. Promises have again been made and not kept.

Becky Carroll, CPS spokeswoman, did not return calls for comment.

Parents and community activists have been vocally opposed to CPS's proposed in-school library due to elimination of space used to teach special education students, and a lack of accessibility for students with physical disabilities.

This is something CPS has denied from the start, saying special ed students are in integrated classrooms with other students, and would still get room for individual sessions.
The Whittier Parent Committee has proposed to renovate the Whittier School fieldhouse to build a library and community center, La Casita Parent Youth Center. They have also, with the help of elected officials and TIF funds, raised $564,000 to go towards the renovation and construction.

"We found our own money," Santos said. "We don't need CPS money. They [CPS] can cry all they want about the $720 million deficit, but it is their own fault and it can be attributed to the way they wastefully spend money."

Some of the key features to the renovation plan would include: more education space for Whittier students, a state of the art library and only green-designed building in Pilsen and a community center that would be open both before and after school.

The Whittier Parent Committee said in a statement that they were "optimistic in working with new administration to fulfill its commitments to renovate the fieldhouse and approve a lease with WPC, and that CPS will recognize the many merits of the WPC renovation proposal."

CPS has stated that the committee has had the lease for several months, and CPS officials are waiting for its return. Once the lease is signed and approved, the Whittier Parent Committee will be fully responsible to get the fieldhouse up to code.

But since that statements release, the group feels it is "hanging on by a thread, not knowing who or what to believe anymore."

"CPS again has said one thing and done another," Santos said. "We took their word, and we went about this the right way. We ended the sit-ins on good faith, and at their request after they assured us they would work with us and go about this project the right way. And again, they have gone back on their word."


Read all our coverage of the Whittier Emelmentary Fieldhouse

Kelsey Duckett is a freelance journalist.

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.

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