Calls for change galvanize parents and educators at first CPS board meeting after mayoral election

By Carly Graf
Medill Reports

Fed up with disinvestment in their schools, South and Southeast Side parents and educators told members of Chicago’s Board of Education that Wednesday’s meeting might be one of their last.

The pending mayoral runoff between Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot bolstered their hopes for change as each candidate touts a progressive education reform platforms, including the creation of an elected school board.

“Last night, the people of Chicago voted for change. They voted to turn the page on Rahm Emanuel’s administration that’s been closing schools and ignoring black children and their families,” said Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) President Jesse Sharkey. “The people in Chicago have spoken, and it’s time for the people in power to listen.”

CTU President Jesse Sharkey speaks on the poor school conditions in the South and Southeast Side of Chicago. (Carly Graf/Medill)

Sharkey’s comments came during a CTU-led press conference preceding the meeting of the school board, whose members are appointed by the mayor.  A group of about 15 Southeast Side residents gathered with teachers to discuss classroom overcrowding, inadequate funding for things like special education programs and lack of community involvement.

One parent from John M. Smyth Elementary School demanded an explanation for the sale of land adjacent to the school at Roosevelt Road and Morgan Street to St. Ignatius College Prep, a Catholic school across the street.

Others voiced complaints of inequity between North and South Side schools.

“No wealthy person, like someone who works in these high-rise buildings downtown, would send their kids to schools in these conditions,” Sharkey said, referring to conditions that many South Siders face.

Chants of “Whose schools? Our schools.” followed the group into the building where the meeting moderators emphasized a more celebratory tone.

Protesters chant “Whose schools? Our schools.”(Carly Graf/Medill)

Morgan Park High School’s lauded jazz ensemble performed, the board congratulated South Loop’s Whitney M. Young Magnet High School Chess Team on its recent state title, and Ronnie Coleman from Jones College Prep received his national school counselor of the year award.

The public comment period began with Alderman Carrie Austin (34th) praising Chicago Public School (CPS) CEO Janice Jackson, a sentiment that would be echoed by others throughout the morning. The sentiment may preempt any changes in her position by the next mayor, although neither runoff candidate has publicly commented on Jackson’s future.

However, the public comment quickly devolved into testimony from educators and parents alike about severe issues plaguing schools in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Health concerns led the way.

Parents from the of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education recounted stories of insulin-dependent children receiving improper care from unqualified temp agency nurses at schools. President Frank Clark responded by noting the national nursing shortage, but said those conditions don’t change the responsibility of the board to ensure children receive adequate care.

About a dozen parents from George Washington Elementary School in East Side attributed their kids’ chronic migraines, allergies and asthma to decrepit, unsafe building conditions. The CPS Chief Health Office mentioned he had inspected the building and recommended inspecting the HVAC system, assessing air quality, removing old carpet and providing more hand sanitizer.

Finally, parents from Virgil Grissom Elementary School in Hegewisch criticized dramatic overcrowding at their school as harmful to special education students, a concern that Clark said “wasn’t being ignored.”

“We are one step closer to electing a mayor who supports an elected school board, but your work here is not done,” said Andrea Tolzmann, one of Raise Your Hand’s speakers.

A parent from John M. Smyth Elementary School raised concerns about overcrowding and special education resources. (Carly Graf/Medill)

CPS Security Chief Jadine Chou and CTU members diverged starkly in viewpoints on how to best guarantee student safety. Chou articulated the district’s vision for safe school certification, a better-trained cadre of security officers and anti-bullying efforts.

“Before you start thinking about pouring all this money into stronger police presence, I’m saying this: we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We need restorative justice programs, nurses, and social workers,” countered Michael Brunson, CTU recording secretary.

Charter schools took the heat, too.

“Educators shouldn’t have to strike to get what they need,” said Chris Baehrend, chair of the charter division of CTU-Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, mentioning the successful strike of 175 teachers from Chicago International Charter Schools earlier this month for better working conditions and class size caps.

“I’m asking the board to do their job and bring accountability to charter organizations,” he said.

Both Preckwinkle and Lightfoot support ending the continued proliferation of charter schools and investing resources into needy public schools instead.

Despite uncertainty around the particulars, one thing’s for sure: there will be a new mayor in May, and that’s likely to mean sweeping changes to CPS. However, many who attended Wednesday’s meeting demanded board members not neglect their responsibilities in the interim.

“You don’t have to wait for a new mayor to address these capacity issues, you don’t have to wait for a new mayor to fix these oversight issues and you don’t have to wait for a new mayor to make things better. You can do that now,” Brunson said to applause.

Photo at top: Chicago Teachers Union members gather host a press conference outside Chicago Public School headquarters on Tuesday. (Carly Graf/Medill)