Photo: Sara Goke/Chicago Workers Media Project
At the end of October, the Whittier Elementary School parents committee emerged victorious from a 37-day sit-in. They were protesting Chicago Public Schools (CPS) administration plans to demolish “La Casita,” a small field house on the campus of their Pilsen-neighborhood school that has long been used as a community center. They also demanded a school library. After trying every maneuver in the book (including cutting off gas to the occupied building), CPS finally agreed both to the library and to permanently cancel the demolition.
The parents group had been organizing for seven years, demanding desperately needed renovations at Whittier. CPS finally agreed to the renovations, but earmarked part of the money for the destruction of La Casita, which they said was “unsafe for public use.” The parents became suspicious when they realized that the assessment was made after the demolition plans. The community commissioned an independent assessment, which said the building was in “good repair”: It just needed a new roof.
So the parents decided to occupy La Casita to save it from destruction and put out the call for books and other supplies to start a school library there. According to Araceli Gonzales, one of the parent leaders (quoted on Democracy Now!): “The moms that made the decision, we were about 10. And now we’re about 35 to 40. And more are coming.”
Her daughter, Daniella Mencia, a 5th grader at the school, explained, “When I heard that they were going to knock it down but the moms wanted to make it into a library, I knew that this was my fight.”
The victory at Whittier runs deeper than the fate of La Casita. In Chicago, as in other cities, public funds are being used to renovate charter and turnaround schools, while other schools, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, are starved for resources. Now, at least in this corner of Chicago, La Casita will continue as a place to learn skills, get a GED, and come together as a neighborhood. And students at Whittier will have a library.