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At Whittier, CPS demolishes a library

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.

Promises

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.”

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Pilsen surveyed on future of coal plant site

Pilsen residents will fill out surveys at a community meeting Wednesday, describing what they want to see on the site of a local coal plant slated for closing.

It’s part of an ongoing survey being conducted by the Pilsen Alliance among its membership and at neighborhood churches and schools, said executive director Nelson Soza. The meeting is Wednesday, June 20 at 6:30 p.m. at Casa Aztlan, 1831 S. Racine.

The Alliance wants to present its findings at a hearing of the city’s task force on reuse of the Fisk and Crawford plants next week, Soza said.  The task force is holding community hearings on June 26 at the National Museum of Mexican Art and on June 28 at the Little Village High School.

Soza is among several community representatives on the task force, along with representatives of the city and Midwest Generation, which owns the Fisk and Crawford plants.  He says discussions have been “very positive and very respectful,” with “everybody generally headed in the same direction.”

The task force is charged with sketching out a general framework for redevelopment, he points out. “The challenges will come when the details start being put down,” following the task force report, expected next month.

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Youth in motion – from Hip Hop to soccer

Young people get a lot of bad press, but with the support of community groups, many are seeking out positive paths in an increasingly difficult world.  Tomorrow two events – a hip hop festival and a soccer league gathering – highlight some of the alternatives.

The Pros Arts Studio’s Sixth Annual We R Hip Hop Festival showcases local musicians, artists, breakdancers and poets in Pilsen and Little Village, emphasizing the noncommercial, positive aspects of hip-hop culture.

It takes place at Dvorak Park, 1119 W. Cullerton, from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, August 13.  Read the rest of this entry »

On Whittier, the Tribune is duped

The Chicago Tribune wants to hold Whittier parents to account for the costs of delaying a new library at the Pilsen elementary school.

There’s another way of looking at it.  You could also hold CPS leadership to account for commencing the project in a manner that seemed designed to foment a confrontation.

You might even ask about contracts being let before the Board of Education approved the project.

Read the rest of this entry »

Whittier parents hold fast

CPS chief Jean Claude Brizard may have thought he could carry out a preemptive strike against the Whittier Parents Committee.  He couldn’t.

Read the rest of this entry »

Whittier parents catch up with Huberman

After chasing down Ron Huberman as he ran to his car this morning, Whittier parents have a meeting with the CPS chief tomorrow.

The parents, who have occupied the fieldhouse at Whittier Elementary School in Pilsen since September 15 demanding a library for their children’s school, turned down a proposed settlement from Huberman yesterday.

This morning they learned from media accounts that Huberman said he was planning a meeting with them on Wednesday, said spokesperson Evelyn Santos.

“We found out by reading it in the paper,” she said this morning.  “But we don’t know the time or the location.  Who sets up a meeting like that?”

Today Huberman was meeting near Whittier at Benito Juarez High School with local elected officials and leaders of local charter schools.  Members of the Whittier Parents Committee went but “they wouldn’t let us in,” Santos said.

“There was a big guy with a list of names of who could come in,” she said. “He looked like a bouncer.”  The Whittier parents weren’t on the list.

After the meeting Huberman left by the back door and “was running to his car” and “we ran over to him,” Santos said.  “We said what’s going on?  You come to this neighborhood and you can’t come and talk to the parents?”

She said Huberman insisted the parents come downtown and proposed a meeting at 3 p.m. on Wednesday.

“He’s the head of CPS – doesn’t he know that school gets out at 3?”  They proposed an earlier meeting, and later this afternoon Huberman called to confirm a 9:30 a.m. meeting at CPS headquarters.  Seven parents will attend the meeting and the rest will be waiting outside, Santos said.

On Monday CPS announced it was willing to build a library inside Whittier and turn the fieldhouse over to an outside group.  The parents committee rejected the proposal.

“There’s no room for a library inside the building,”  Santos said.  “We need an expansion.  We have 1st and 2nd graders together and kids eating lunch in the basement.”  Whittier recently went from K-6 to K-8 when nearby De La Cruz Middle School was closed.

“Show us where the library is going to be built” inside the school, Santos challenged.  “Let the press in – they’ll see there’s no room.”

The parents committee, which has operated community programs in Whittier’s fieldhouse for years, also wants to be in charge of running the building.  Over the years parents have built a strong community school program, partnering with groups such as Chicago Children’s Choir, Alivio Health Center and Merit Music School, developing a community garden across the street, and holding after-school and adult education programs in the building.

And they’re the ones who’ve been fighting for years for TIF funds to improve the facility, Santos said.  The proposal to bring in an outside group is “a slap in the parents’ face,” she said.

Last week negotiations brokered by Pilsen elected officials fell apart after they obtained a written list of the parents’ demands and Huberman failed to respond, Santos said.  The parents decided to hold an overnight vigil at CPS headquarters Sunday night, and went to Huberman’s office Monday morning.  He wasn’t in.

Santos said the parents finally received a copy of an engineering report done for CPS which declares the building to be unsound.  She said it was clear the study was done after the decision to demolish was made.

The new CPS proposal is a big step forward from its previous offer to delay demolition for six months.  “We’re getting close,” said Santos.  But she said the sit-in will continue until they have an agreement in writing.

Santos believes Huberman is dragging his feet (when he isn’t being chased) because he’s afraid the Whittier parents will set an example for parents at other schools – including the 160 that don’t have a school library, according to CPS.

Parents are coming up against Huberman’s agenda of shifting resources “from public schools to charter schools,” Santos said.  “You talk about reading levels and you defend having 160 schools without libraries?” she said.  “Shame on you!”

At a deeper level, the parents are challenging CPS leadership’s refusal to “hear our voices,” she said.  “They don’t listen; they ignore us.  The only way to have our voices heard is to sit in.”

Whittier sit-in dramatizes CPS inequities

For over a week, parents at Whittier Elementary in Pilsen have been sitting in to block demolition of the school’s fieldhouse and demand a library for the school.  Tomorrow morning they will rally with supporters (Friday, September 24, 10 a.m., 1900 W. 23rd Place).

The sit-in is sharply dramatizing issues of transparency and accountability in CPS facilities planning, long raised by advocates for neighborhood schools (see last year’s Newstips report) and now under examination by a task force of the state legislature.

The task force has hearings scheduled for Saturday in Garfield Park and Tuesday in Humboldt Park (details here).

For years Whittier parents have organized for improvements to the school including a library.  When TIF money was allocated for Whittier earlier this year, it turned out $356,000 had been budgeted to demolish the fieldhouse long used for community programs including ESL.

They’ve requested that CPS provide a breakdown of the demolition budget and a copy of the engineering assessment that is said to have deemed the fieldhouse structually unsound, to no avail.  An independent engineering assessment arranged for by the parents found the building to be sound but in need of a new roof, projected to come in at around $25,000.

That’s typical of information available about CPS facilities planning, said Cecile Carroll of Blocks Together, who is a member of the legislative task force.  Since Ron Huberman took over leadership of CPS, the capital improvement budget has been presented as a single lump sum with no itemization, she said.  Before that, the 2009 capital improvement budget showed millions of dollars being spent on schools that were being closed and turned over to Renaissance 2010, she said.

How many Chicago public schools lack libraries?  It’s not generally known, she said.  “I can guarantee, though, that schools serving more upscale residents have it all, libraries, math labs, science labs, everything,” she said.

In August the task force toured Whittier as well as Attucks Elementary in Bronzeville, relocated suddenly in 2008 (as reported here), and Carpenter Elementary in Humboldt Park, which is being phased out to make room for an elite high school (more here).

Parents at Carpenter and at Anderson Elementary, working with Designs for Change, have filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, charging that CPS violated the students’ civil rights – not just in the process of deciding to close the schools, but in “gross inequities” in the allocation of classrooms and learning resources during the phasing-out period, including “indignities reminiscent of the Old South,” such as separate entrances and separate bathrooms.

Carpenter is now getting millions of dollars in renovations – far beyond anything noted in its official building assessment, Carroll said.  And Whittier is still waiting for a library.

The task force hopes to propose legislation that would reform facilities planning in CPS in next year’s session in Springfield, Carroll said.

Clean Power spotlight on Solis after Munoz signs on

An grassroots campaign to win aldermanic support for the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance had its first victory yesterday when Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) signed on as a co-sponsor.  Meanwhile the other alderman representing a ward containing a coal plant, Ald. Danny Solis (25th), faces a protest outside a fundraising dinner tonight.

Solis has not endorsed the clean power ordinance, which would raise standards for emissions of carbon dioxide and particulates.

A press conference at 6:30 p.m. (Wednesday, August 4) and a “people’s dinner” outside Alhambra Palace Restaurant, 1240 W. Randolph, will highlight the group’s charge that Solis is “more concerned about his campaign donors than the health of neighborhood residents,” said Jerry Mead of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization.

He said that Midwest Generation has been a major contributor to Solis’s campaigns.

Midwest Gen’s two Chicago plants, Fisk in Pilsen and Crawford in Little Village, cause premature deaths, ER visits and asthma attacks, and contribute to lung cancer and respiratory disease, according to the Chicago Clean Power Coalition.  The two plants are located in more densely populated areas than any other coal plants in the nation.

They are also among the largest sources of carbon emissions in the city, emitting 5 million metric tons – the equivalent of 872,000 cars – in 2007, according to the coalition.

In 2003 voters in a precinct near Fisk voted by nearly 90 percent in favor of tougher emission standards, Mead said.

In recent weeks PERRO and others have been petitioning residents at neighborhood festivals and churches.  “The response has been really good,” Mead said.  “It’s clear that people really favor the ordinance.”

Munoz announced his support for the ordinance Tuesday morning, citing congressional inaction on climate change and health concerns in his ward.

“For over eight years our communities have fought to clean up these plants, and we are glad Ald. Muñoz is responding to our cries for clean air,” said Kimberly Wasserman of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.



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