Sit In Against School Closings

by Tyreshia Black 

UYIJP participant Tyreshia Black interviews Chicago teacher Cynthia Smith at a Nov. 2 sit in against school closings. Photo by Kari Lydersen.

Editor’s Note: The following story was written by a student in our Urban Youth International Journalism Program, which is generously funded by the McCormick Foundation.

Teachers, students and many concerned local residents gathered at a rally at City Hall in front of the office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Nov. 2 yelling out chants like, “We’re fired up, can’t take it no more” and “Na na na na, hey hey hey, stop closing schools.”
Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey, who I interviewed, proclaimed that he was putting those who are causing problems “on notice.” Sharkey meant that those who are making the choice to close schools and lay off teachers and – in his view – deny children the best education will have to face him and many others.
There has been much controversy and protest around Chicago public schools since the Chicago Board of Education, the Mayor’s office and other officials reportedly plan to close about 100 more Chicago public schools that are labeled as under-performing or under-enrolled. Already, many schools have been closed. The Board of Education was supposed to release its list of schools to close on Dec. 1, although the new schools CEO Barbara Bennett-Byrd successfully asked the state legislature for a few more months to make the decision. Meanwhile, parents, teachers and students at the protest said that no public schools should be closed at all.

CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey talks with youth reporter David Cal. Photo by Tyreshia Black.

Sharkey has been a teacher for 11 years at Senn High School on the North Side. He seemed very upset about the closings of schools and he has some first-hand experience because Senn was transformed into a military school against the protests of many students and teachers. “The experience of being told by the district that your school is going to close is completely demoralizing,” said Sharkey.
Many people agree with him.
People like Cynthia Smith, who is a teacher for special needs students at Lane Tech High School. Smith was one of the people shouting the loudest at the City Hall sit-in. “I’ve been to about every rally and it is evident that the neighborhood schools are one of the pillars of the neighborhood,” Smith said. She was a true trooper, showing great physical and mental energy throughout the sit-in.
“I want to stress that all neighborhoods and every single kid in this city deserves to be treated equitably,” she said. “Our students know that this Board is committing a crime by continually depriving ‘certain’ neighborhoods because of a lack of adequate funding.”
Smith wouldn’t let anyone stop her from talking about what she saw as right. “We will make it change, we will make it happen, the people will unite, the people will right the injustices they are trying to impose on us,” she said.
Fortunately, I had another chance to interview the busy Sharkey later in the sit-in. He shared some vital and shocking information with me. “The Board started closing schools in 1977,” he said. “They’ve closed about 150 schools and now there are about three times as many schools on probation (at risk for closing) than there were 15 years ago.”
Sharkey had it engraved in his mind that he, parents, students and teachers would stop schools from closing.
“The people who close schools look at schools like a chess board of little pieces but one move can change the game,” he said.
The protest was organized by the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) and the group Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP). Members from both organizations helped form peace circles and sung call and response songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved.” People were even outside City Hall singing songs like “Won’t Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Parents among the protestors said they were enraged and anxious about where they would send their children if their schools were closed. Students who were there voiced concern about their futures, possibly without their schools, not knowing how long it would take them to get back on track.
City Hall closed for the evening and protesters could not use the bathrooms. But some of the protesters stayed on for hours more in an act of civil disobedience. Finally around 10 p.m., 10 people were arrested. Like Sharkey, Smith and the others who showed, they vowed not to give up.

The protestors included both teachers and their students. Photo by Tyreshia Black.

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