Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=214690
Story Retrieval Date: 5/21/2013 6:23:10 AM CST
Students, teachers and parents raise protest signs and chant at CPS officials who struggle to get through a presentation at Truman College on Monday evening.
CPS gives up in face of public protests over school closures
Breakout sessions (seen here through a window) in which parents could share their concerns with the district were closed to the media despite the objections of many audience members.
Want peace? Prepare for war.
CPS officials seemed prepared for neither on Monday, as they were faced with a barrage of verbal attacks from parents and activists who made it clear that they would not allow neighborhood schools to close without a fight. In the end, the officials had no other option but retreat.
A public forum on school utilization held at Truman College on Monday evening transformed into a protest, as parents, students and teachers upset about the prospect of school closings shouted over Chicago Public Schools officials attempting to deliver a PowerPoint presentation on the district’s budget.
After several attempts to quiet the crowd failed, the district officials gave up on the presentation being delivered to a crowd that filled the stands in Truman’s gymnasium.
Many parents demanded the chance to speak in Truman’s gym in front of cameras for local news broadcasts, but CPS wanted to save all comments from community members for small group breakout sessions that were closed to the media.
When the time came to divide into breakout groups, more than half of the attendees refused to leave the gym and began chanting, “Save our schools!” and other slogans at the district officials.
Craig Benes, who oversees the 41 schools in the Ravenswood Ridge Elementary Network, tried multiple times to calm the crowd to no avail. After the general meeting he said that the people shouting out did not represent the majority of the audience and estimated more than 200 people attended the subsequent breakout sessions.
“When we had the large group it prevented others from being heard. We really want to provide an opportunity for all to be heard, not just a few people,” he said.
The decision to close the breakout sessions to the media – television news stations were allowed to film, but had to leave once the conversations began – angered several audience members.
“I disagree with that. They don’t want the media to hear. They’re trying to get us in small groups, but they don’t really care,” said Mia Norris, a mother of six children. “That’s a copout.”
“We don’t want to go to the breakout sessions because we know that we are not really being heard,” she added. Norris found out about the forum when her 7-year-old son, Samuel, came home from Stockton Elementary crying and handed her a paper about school closures.
Marielle Sainvilus, CPS press secretary, explained that the decision to close the breakout sessions was so that people could speak freely in a comfortable environment without the presence of reporters. “It was not a media forum. It was a forum for the community to speak,” she said.
Anton Miglietta, a parent of a sixth-grader at Inter-American Magnet School, left his breakout session once he discovered it was being run by a private consultant rather than CPS employees.
“I think essentially it says they have no respect for parent voice and community voice. It says they’re afraid of what might come to them. It’s just a farce, it’s a joke. It’s a total joke,” Miglietta said.
“There’s absolutely nothing parents are receiving from this in terms of an honest discussion or dialogue,” he said. His daughter’s school is not in danger of closing, but the school he attended as a child, Stockton, is considered underutilized. Miglietta also serves as a member of the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Task Force.
“CPS hired independent facilitators so it could be as independent as possible,” said Sainvilus. She clarified that CPS officials were in each breakout room in to answer questions.
Some audience members were neither parents nor teachers. One, Tim Furman, a Rogers Park resident, yelled at CPS officials multiple times during their presentation to allow community members to speak.
“My interest is in community and people who are sending their kids to school in our neighborhood. I’m not trying to save my job. I’m not even trying to save myself a commute to take my child to school one distance or another. What I’m just doing is observing that there’s something wrong happening and trying to call attention to it,” Furman said.
Furman wore a Gale Elementary T-shirt as he led the crowd in chants at the CPS officials.
As the tone of the meeting grew more vitriolic, not all audience members joined in the impromptu protest. The students, teachers and parents of Brennemann Elementary noticeably got up and left halfway through the meeting. A district official confirmed that the school had brought students there to observe, but as the crowd grew more raucous decided it was an inappropriate environment. Brennemann’s administrators could not be reached for comment.
The meeting was the first of two that will be held for the Ravenswood Ridge community. CPS will be holding a total of 28 meetings, two for each division of the district, as it moves forward in its decision-making process on school closings.
A preliminary closure list is expected to be released next month; a final decision is expected at the end of March.