Austin Freedom Riders continue demand for high school for all Austin area kids

They call themselves the “Freedom Riders.” Every Saturday for the past four months, they’ve fanned out across Chicago’s West Side with petitons and leaflets, demanding that the Chicago Board of Education reverse its discrimination against their community and create a general high school that any Austin child can attend.

The Austin Freedom Riders consist of young men and women between the ages of 11 and about 20. All of them have mobilized behind the demand that Chicago stop discriminating against the Austin community and provide a general high school for their community.

Many of the members of the Freedom Riders are still in elementary school and are just getting their first knowledge of community activism. They leave their headquarters (a storefront on Division St.) on Saturday mornings and go to intersections where large number of their neighbors congregate for shopping or are just driving by.

Austin is a community where large numbers of people are still taking public transportation, so a lot of signing can be done at CTA bus stops.

The Freedom Riders also dodge traffic in the crosswalks asking drivers who are stopped at red lights to sign their petitions and take their literature.

Unfortunately, local big business has not made it easy for the young people who are trying to improve their public schools. When Substance followed the Freedom Riders one Saturday in October, they were quickly ordered out of the Wal-Mart parking lot by a security guard who used several violent obscenities to threaten the young people.

Even though it appears that many of them have heard the kind of language used by the security guard, none of them responded violently or even with violent language.

The Freedom Riders have also become a presence at meetings of the Chicago Board of Education. They had intended to speak at the October Chicago Board meeting but were unable to do so after they discovered that the agenda had been packed with charter schools supporters who had been organized (and provided with reserve seating in the Board chambers) by staff from the Board’s multi-million dollar “Office of New Schools.” The “Office of New Schools” is the Board’s center for closing down regular public schools and creating semi-private public charter schools under Mayor Daley’s “Renaissance 2010” program. On the morning of October 24, I saw a number of the people from the Freedom Riders leaving CPS headquarters as I was arriving to cover the Board meeting.

“The charter schools packed the meeting,” one of them told me. They said they would find better things to do in their community.

The Freedom Riders use a sound truck as well as leaflets and petitions to spread their message. Most of the people of the Austin community don’t know that the Chicago Board of Education has closed Austin High School to the community it served for more than 100 years. When they learn that everyone has to apply to go to Austin, many people can’t believe it and think that the young people who are telling them must be telling a story. But the truth eventually becomes clear.

The Freedom Riders are also learning the hard way that community leaders are often their enemies, not their friends. In a city as complex as Chicago, there are often people who proclaim their roots in the community, then prove that their loyalties are with Mayor Daley and his programs. In the Austin community, the Daley agenda meant that Austin High School was closed down and divided up mainly into charter schools run by Daley’s political allies under “Renaissance 2010.”

As the word spreads through Austin that their high school has been, effectively, privatized (two of the three “schools” inside Austin are non-union charter schools) and taken away from the community, support for alternatives both in education and in community leadership grow.

The Freedom Riders have also taken the time to study the Board of Education’s hefty $5.8 billion annual budget. Several of their members showed up at the first day of budget hearings in July at Lane Technical High School to ask about the problems created by Board policies for high school students in the Austin community.

The Freedom Riders also participated in a press conference critical of the budget that was hosted by PURE and other groups.

Despite all of the efforts by the Freedom Riders, Austin High School began the 2007-2008 school year closed to most students who would have attended the school before Arne Duncan and Michael Scott recommended that the school board stop taking freshman students in June 2004. One of the things the Freedom Riders have learned, thanks in part to Substance, is that Duncan and Scott betrayed the community when they used the security problems they had helped create at Austin as the pretext for claiming they had to freeze out freshmen for one year. Of course, year after year the freeze remained until Austin was officially closed in June 2007.

But the Austin struggle may have just begun. 


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