High school students band together to protest their own district

By Kelan Lyons

Before this school year, Denise Hernandez was quiet and reserved. Despite competing on her school’s water polo and swimming teams, and being the head coordinator of the robotic team, she wasn’t one to speak out or do anything that could affect her schoolwork.

This year is different.

“I recently realized I had to put my own things aside in order to speak up, and become something that’s bigger than me,” said the 17-year old junior from Robert Lindblom Math & Science Academy in Englewood.

Hernandez is one of the student organizers galvanizing Chicago Public Schools students from across the city to stand up and oppose the district’s budget cuts. Under the leadership of Matthew Mata, a senior from the prestigious Walter Payton College Prep, CPS students from a wide range of neighborhoods have joined together for three protests and rallies in the Loop.

“We wanted something that all students could get involved in,” said Mata.

Mata describes the first demonstration — held on October 28, the day of a monthly Board of Education meeting — as a “study-in.” He and about 150 students gathered outside the  CPS building at 42 W. Madison Street, where they  sat on the pavement and completed schoolwork.

Mata said the decision to complete homework as they sat on the street while the Board met inside CPS headquarters was meant to show “the variety of classes that could be cut if these mid-year cuts do occur.” Mata’s reference is to the possibility of further teacher layoffs in the middle of the year if the state legislature does not provide some solution to the district’s pension crisis.

“To a lot of students, teachers are like their second parents,” said Hernandez, “And when we see those teachers being taken away from us, it’s really tough. It’s like being separated from your home.”

Demonstrations on November 6 and 13 included marches and rallies. The goals of these, according to Mata, was to put pressure on Springfield to change the wording of SB 318, a bill in the General Assembly that freezes property taxes, requires the state to pay $200 million in pension payments for CPS, and ends Illinois’ current school aid formula.

Mata called the bill a “short-term solution” that will “end up hurting teachers in the long run.” The bill purposely sunsets Illinois’ public school funding formula in two years in the name of creating a better one, and many are opposed, saying it’s shortsighted.

The protests involved more than just chanting and megaphones. Students gathered en masse and engaged in slam poetry, sang songs and gave speeches, all to demonstrate, in Mata’s words, “what it means to be a CPS student in your community.” According to a story recently published by Catalyst Chicago, between 600 and 800 protestors participated.

“We really wanted to do something beyond the traditional rally,” said Hernandez.

Tensions over resources

Caitlin Battung, 16-year old junior from Kennedy High School, found out about the protests on Facebook, on the Sunday before the November 6 rally. She was initially bothered that there wasn’t any representation from her school.

“I did see how it was mostly selective enrollment schools, and I just thought, ‘Oh, they’re just doing their own thing, so I guess I’m not invited,’ ” said Battung.

Selective enrollment schools, which choose students based on test scores, grades and other criteria, are typically better resourced and don’t have the same needs as neighborhood open enrollment high schools that must serve any student in the community. Mata and Hernandez, who attend Payton and Lindblom, respectively, go to selective enrollment high schools, while Battung attends Kennedy, a neighborhood open enrollment school.

“[Open enrollment schools] need more resources to provide for our different varieties of students,” said Battung, “Selective enrollment schools don’t have to worry about problems like ours.”

Mata said there’s a “tension between neighborhood school kids and selective enrollment school kids” because students from open enrollment schools feel selective enrollment students have not “accurately portrayed the crisis that has been felt all over Chicago.”

Those crises include the lack of basic resources, such as leaky ceilings, holes in walls or textbooks that aren’t up to date.

“In my school, in some classes we have a lack of desks, and because of that, sometimes kids need to sit on the vents,” said Battung. “We use textbooks from like 20 years ago to study math and physics.”

Evelyn Solis, senior at Kelly High School on the city’s Southwest Side, said she’s noticed the budget cuts at her school. Since 2012, Kelly High School has seen almost 1,000 students leave for other schools, leading to a loss of money under the district’s per-pupil budgeting scheme.

“There’s a big hole in the wall in the cafeteria. There’s a lot of cockroaches. It’s really dirty,” Solis said, adding that, because of the loss of money, her school also lost a significant number of clubs in the last five years.

Still, Solis said she thinks the neighborhood and selective enrollment students are fighting for the same thing.

“They’re fighting for education equality,” Solis said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re from Payton or from Kelly or from Curie. We have to work together to make a difference. If not, we’re going to get nowhere.”

Hernandez echoed Solis. “I think it’s our job as student ambassadors to bridge the gap between selective enrollment schools, neighborhood schools and charter schools because there’s such a divide between us,” Hernandez said. “It’s our job to sort of bring us together and say, ‘Let’s put that aside. It’s time to come together and fight for one cause.’ ”

Mata reached out to more students from open enrollment schools before the November 13 rally, so students such as Solis and Battung had a more prominent role in the rallies. He called the strategy “a conversation that takes time” so students from open enrollment schools feel the issues facing them are adequately represented.

Students protest in the Loop over CPS budgets. Photo taken by Matthew Mata.
Students protest in the Loop over CPS budgets. Photo taken by Matthew Mata.

The students say their schools have been fairly supportive of the protests, and some teachers have even helped them plan their demonstrations. Though CPS has publicly voiced support for the students’ cause, Hernandez said officials have reached out to Lindblom students “kind of trying to get us to back off. It’s really hard to be a student activist, and then your school system is telling you that you shouldn’t be doing this, or they’re trying to intimidate you.”

Hernandez said the move from quiet, reserved high schooler to student activist was worth the transformation.

“When we actually rally together, we do have a large voice, and it does have an impact. Obviously with CPS coming to our schools and trying to intimidate us, it’s just a sign that what we’re doing is actually having an impact,” Hernandez said. “I think students have more of a voice than we think we have.”

Photo at top: Students protest CPS budget cuts (Matthew Mata/Walter Payton College prep)