More than 500 activists, unions hold candlelight vigil at Board of Education in prepration for massive protests against closings, turnarounds and charters at December 14 Board meeting... Organizers added to holiday cheer with Christmas Carols opposing the closings

On Tuesday, December 13, 2011, more than 500 teachers, parents, children and other supporters of real public education gathered from 6:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. in front of the downtown Chicago, central office location of the Chicago Public Schools at 125 S. Clark Street in preparation for the monthly Board of Education meeting the next day. All of the protesters had gathered to oppose the continued attack on Chicago's real public schools by the city's mayor and the city's own Board of Education.

One of the signs carried by protesters during the vigil in front of the headquarters of Chicago Public Schools on December 13, 2011, noted the literary similarities between Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose school "team" announced its annual Hit List before Christmas, and the Grinch. Substance photo by Susan Zupan. The big issues for the December 14 Board meeting are the annual “hit list” announcement and the proposal before the Board to again expand the city's failing charter schools. This school year, the Board has announced that it is planning to close down and/or “turn around” 20 neighborhood public schools. Ten of those schools will be subjected to so-called "turnaround" if the announced plans of the mayor and the Board go through.

Thanks to a new law passed after protests in the past, each of the school closings will now require one hearing at the Board but also two hearings in the school community. This came as a result of what had come to be legislatively known as “the Soto Bill,” which mandates that Chicago Public Schools follow a more inclusive planning process for facilities planning and changes.

But CPS lawyers seem to have discovered a loophole in the facilities law. Instead of three hearings, for the school "turnarounds", the Board is claiming that this action is not as drastic for the students — and therefore the mandates of the Soto Bill do not apply. As a result, for the ten schools facing "turnaround," CPS has scheduled only one hearing, that at CPS headquarters, and no hearings in the communities.

In turnarounds, as one side of their mouths makes false claims regarding the significance of standardized test scores, the other side says “You’re fired” to every employee in the school, which includes apparently score-dropping lunchroom and custodial workers. CPS officials, lead by CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, have been going around publicly claiming that in order to change what they refer to as the "culture" of the schools, they have to fire even the custodial workers and lunchroom cashiers in order to improve thing. The impact of terrible poverty in the communities of all the schools facing "turnaround" is ignored. Also ignored is the fact that by firing school workers who live in those communities (as many of those do), CPS is adding to that poverty in a time of economic recession.

The December 13 crowd of more than 500, included representatives from the 20 schools on this year’s CPS “hit list.”

Following her speech to the enthusiastic crowd, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis talked to as many of those protesting as she could, from children to senior citizens and many union members and organizers. Substance photo by Susan Zupan. The members of the crowd listened to many brief speeches, testimonials, and pep talks for the fight ahead. They chanted, and they sang Christmas Carols with satirical lyrics. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organizers passed out battery-charged candlesticks for the gathering, which metaphorically like so many events before it and more to come attempt to shed some light on what is best for public education in the city of Chicago and across the United States (read: not what the city’s or nation’s so-called “leaders” are continually forcing upon us). As the crowd thinned, many going home to rest up before their early return for the public participation portion of the next day’s BoE meeting, approximately 15-20 overnight campers were already set-up in front of the building. Maintaining a presence while walking along the outskirts of the protest, a few men wore green baseball hats that proclaimed: National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer. In addition to continuing their attack on real public schools in Chicago, the privatization freaks on the Chicago Board of Education, led by multi-millionaire David Vitale and billionaire Penny Pritzker, will be expanding the city's charter schools as part of their continuing attack on real public schools. One of the signs carried by teachers on December 13, 2011, stated the feelings of the majority. Substance photo by Susan Zupan.One of the other political challenges noted by the protesters was the proposal before the Board of Education to further expand the city's charter schools, even though recent research has shown that the massive expansion of charter schools in Chicago has been a failure. At least one CTU lawyer was present.

Representatives from all of the schools on Rahm Emanuel's 2012 Hit List were at the vigil, many carrying signs reminding reporters of the specific humanity of their schools — and challenging the slanders and libels from Jean-Claude Brizard claiming that they were all "failing" and that everyone in them should be fired. Substance photo by Susan Zupan. A postal truck driver blasted his horn in support of the protest for the full length of his trip down Clark Street, riling up the crowd; one child near me asked his mother, “Won’t he get fired for that?” The police maintained a considerable presence; a few uniformed officers were positioned in the street behind the parked cars located directly in front of 125 S. Clark Street. At least 15 uniformed officers were positioned just north of the supporters of public education, and 20-25 were positioned to the south. By 8:30 the thick coat-clad and blanketed campers were covering themselves with giant green tarps to fight the cold rain.

The police ranks also thinned a bit, and those remaining mostly moved out of the rain closer to the buildings north and south of the campers who were directly in front of 125 S. Clark. The temperature reading from a corner business read: 44 degrees. A few nurturing souls were passing out cups of hot chocolate. One of the speakers was Illinois State Representative candidate Rudy Lozano from the 21st District. He said that we were here to let the Board of Education and the city of Chicago know that we will not stand still when it comes to closing our schools. "We fought for decades to get these schools, and we would not allow the forces of gentrification to take them over," he told the crowd. "Our children deserved the same access to education as others in Illinois. We needed equitable funding and after school programs for children as well as adults. We would not allow them to close our schools, and in so doing close the future of our children."

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey prepared to tuck in for the night with a good book and a sign supporting the people of Wendell Smith Elementary School, which Brizard wants to subject to a humiliating "turnaround" following ten years of sabotage by CPS officials, including the draining of the school's top talented students by the nearby Chicago International Charter School (CICS) "Longwood" campus two blocks away. CICS Longwood has been given the names of the top students in the area by officials of Chicago Public Schools "Office of New Schools" for nearly a decade, but is still "failing" by Illinois standards. Yet Brizard wants to libel Smith school, a real public school, while continuing to funnel millions of dollars into CICS Longwood, which is operated by the controversial Edison Schools. Substance photo by Susan Zupan. CTU President Karen Lewis also spoke. She said that a decision would be made [by the BoE] that would either be the right thing or not. But our voices would be completely heard. This was not just about Chicago, it was about the nation. This is about the soul of public education. If they keep on choosing to stay on the same path, it will continue to not work because the data keeps coming in showing us that it’s not working. They need to stop experimenting on our children, stop imposing things that don’t work, and stop appointing politically-connected people to run our publically-funded schools. When they speak of “choice” it is about false choices. They have closed some schools 2-3 times. They close libraries and clinics then expect the schools to do the job by themselves. There are other options. They can make the right choices or they can continue down this political path that studies show does not work. We all need to start telling the truth, not just a few of us. And we need to say it over and over and over and over.

One of the most entertaining aspects of this vigil was that it included the singing of Christmas Carols with altered lyrics; song sheets were distributed for the first sing-along by the crowd. The lyrics to “Jingle Bells” included: “Dashing through the snow/ Cause my school just closed today/ Across gang lines I go/ Can you hear me say NO NO NO.” After most of the crowd had dispersed, a duet of CTU organizers, Martin Ritter and Christel Williams, started to sing “The 12 Days of Xmas”; they were great sports as the remaining crowd encouraged them to complete the song in its entirety. The following is the last verse, which of course includes all of the other verses:

Chicago Teachers Union organizers Marty Ritter and Crystal Willaims provided a touch of the holidays by leading the vigil in the singing of holiday songs with lyrics specially revised for the event. Substance photo by Susan Zupan.“On the twelfth day of Christmas the Mayor took away: any chance of reelection, NATO protest permits, any hope of learning, public libraries, all our mental health clinics, 20 schools, all our living wages, all our hopes and dreams, all the local school councils, all our counselors, our teachers and neighborhood schools from the city!”

Earlier in a press release, CTU President Karen Lewis tried to put the issues prompting the vigil and protests in perspective. “School closings, consolidations, turnarounds, phase-outs and other similar experiments do not work. There is no value in shifting children from one under-resourced school to another,” said Lewis. “The people who live in CPS’ targeted communities should have more than a ceremonial say in what happens in and to their schools. Parents, teachers and students are fed up with these dangerous experiments. It’s time for the Board to halt its attack on neighborhood schools and come to the table to have real, honest discussion about what it really takes to offer a world class education to all of our students and not just the select and privileged few.”


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