Aug 18, 2013
Despite Mayor Emanuel’s rhetoric about a “21st century education” for every student, his school budget cuts have resulted in the layoff of librarians at 50 elementary schools; at nearly all of them, that means they won’t have functioning library.
Now CPS has gone a step further, demolishing the library built by parents at Whittier Elementary.
Despite the rhetoric about parent empowerment and community involvement — despite Barbara Byrd Bennett’s high-sounding promises about “restoring trust” — the demolition was ordered and carried out with no communication with the parents who had created and fought for the library and community center they called La Casita.
A little history: after a 43-day occupation of the fieldhouse at Whittier in the fall of 2010, then-CPS chief Ron Huberman promised not to demolish the building and agreed to work with Whittier parents and elected officials to find funding to improve La Casita, to be operated by the parents committee as a community center.
In the summer of 2011, then-CPS chief Jean Claude Brizard tried to demolish La Casita, but when demolition crews showed unannounced, parents reoccupied the building. In the aftermath, Brizard acknowledged the Huberman agreement and expressed his “eagerness to formalize a lease agreement and turn the fieldhouse over to the Whittier Parents Committee” in a letter to the parents.
CPS says an August 12 engineering inspection found the structure unsafe, requiring immediate demolition, with no time to consult with the parents group. But the Sun Times reports that “an almost identical report” by the same engineering firm issued in May “call[s] into question the rational [CPS spokesperson Becky] Carroll gave for the hurried destruction this weekend.”
Carroll also said the Whittier Parents never signed a lease. But Gema Gaete of the parents committee said they’d proposed changes to onerous provisions in the lease offered by CPS, and that letters from lawyers for the parents seeking to iron out issues were never answered.
In a final show of bad faith, CPS offered to meet with parents at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday. By that time, demolition was underway.
On his Facebook page, Ald. Danny Solis said he would be meeting with CPS and Whittier parents on Saturday morning. But at a back-to-school fair he sponsored Saturday morning — where Whittier supporters showed up to confront him — a staffer told the Sun Times Solis was “out of town, on vacation.”
CPS promises to build an artificial-turf field, raising the question of whether the deal pushed by Solis for a soccer field for Cristo Rey, a nearby Jesuit high school, is back on track. According to DNAInfo, it the new facilities will be built with TIF funds.
Schools without libraries
During the 2010 occupation, Whittier emerged as a symbol of a widespread problem in CPS — schools without libraries. Before La Casita, Whittier was one of over 160 CPS schools that don’t have a library.* A few are being installed in schools receiving students from closing schools, but at the same time, 43 elementary schools are losing their librarians, according to Raise Your Hand.
Another seven are losing some library staffing, according to the group. In addition, 26 high schools are losing librarians.
So under Mayor Emanuel, CPS schools without functioning libraries are headed toward the 200 mark, possibly topping it. And now Whittier is again without a library.
CPS seized about 2,000 books, many of them brand new, from the library in La Casita, said Lisa Angonese, a former Whittier parent who’s continued to run the library. After the 2010 sit-in, books were donated from all over the world, she said.
Also seized were the library’s iPads, Kindles, and computers. “These were resources that the community was using as of yesterday,” she said.
La Casita featured readings by neighborhood authors, documentary film screenings, and programs on topics like domestic violence, foreclosure prevention and immigration rights, along with ESL and GED classes, she said. It also provided a safe haven for children during dangerous after-school hours.
These are services the community needs, and it was all provided at no cost to the public, she said.
Maybe CPS will go forward with its long-delayed promise to install a library in Whittier, but Angonese doesn’t know where. The last proposal was to put up a divider in a small room now used as a resource room for special education students, she said.
The Whittier parents are now demanding that Emanuel and Solis restore the services and resources that have been snatched away. They’re calling for a new fieldhouse to replace La Casita.
After an all-night vigil and a march to Solis’s school fair and back, the Whittier mothers and their supporters formed a circle in the middle of the street and held hands. One leader thanked God for La Casita and for bringing the community together. We have not been defeated, she promised.
Today, Whittier symbolizes something beyond the lack of libraries: hardworking parents doing everything they can to support their children’s education, and being undercut and disrespected by CPS.
Meanwhile, a new volunteer group is collecting books for CPS elementary schools that have no library, focusing on schools with high rates of poverty and homelessness. So far Books First Chicago has set up libraries in Deneen, McCutcheon, and Parker Elementary.
At Parker, the group reports on its Facebook page, the principal had planned to start a library, but funding was withdrawn by CPS.
* As Matt Farmer reported at the time, it was Whittier mothers who obtained and released the list of 160 schools without libraries — overwhelmingly concentrated on the South and West Sides.