Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday May 31st, 2013, 1:58pm

West Side Education Activists Plan New Strategy To Fight School Closings

West Side education activists say they have a new tactic to stop school closings in Chicago. The plan involves filing stacks of parent complaints with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

The strategy is centered around the adverse affects the school closings will have on disabled and African-American students, said Elce Redmond with the South Austin Community Coalition.

The plan aims to mobilize the community and further expose how closing 50 neighborhood schools, concentrated on the South and West Sides, will impact children. Redmond said the goal is to send busloads of people to deliver the complaints to the civil rights office in Chicago and possibly have people go to Washington.

"We want to go to the Department of Education and say, 'Listen, based on these complaints, we have a very serious crisis here,'" Redmond said at a West Side community meeting Thursday night. "And a serious crisis that as a federal government, who is supposedly in charge of protecting young people, you have to step in and do something."

Last week, the Chicago Board of Education approved the shut down of 49 elementary schools and one high school in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system at the end of this academic year. Five other schools will also see their entire staff fired and replaced.

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organizer Crystal Williams said she was spiritually, emotionally, and physically drained while sitting in on the board of education meeting last week. She said the school district officials "were just heartless."

Instead of voting on the schools slated to close individally, board members lumped almost all of the schools together in one sweeping vote.

Williams said it was obvious the vote was set up.

"It just showed the disrespect that they have for our children, for us as adults, me being a parent of a child in CPS and many of you in this room," she said.

Three lawsuits have been filed so far on behalf of CPS parents looking to halt the closings. Two class action lawsuits were filed in federal court, while one lawsuit was filed in Cook County Circuit Court.

"The lawsuits are incredibly important, but there has to be feet on the ground, really sort of feeding some of the information for other potential lawsuits that may come up," Redmond said.

He stressed that the complaint form tactic is part of an overall campaign against school closings, and not the "end all, save all."

West Side residents also talked with members of the Legal Assistance Foundation, which provides free legal services to people living in poverty in metropolitan Chicago, about other possible legal actions against the closings.

Before explaining the details, attorney Carrie Chapman said lawsuits are just one part of the fight to keep schools open.

"It is not the answer," she stressed. "Filing a lawsuit is hard. There's a lot of rules. There's a lot of things stacked against you. There's a lot of unfriendly judges. It's just a piece of the puzzle."

But even so, Chapman told about 20 people at the meeting that although the Legal Assistance Foundation does not have the capacity to file a suit against all 50 schools slated to close, it is looking to hear from parents and community members about individual schools that have a strong legal claim.

She said seeking out schools with a unique situation is not about helping one school over another; instead, doing so shines a light on the issue and forces CPS to answer questions.

Dwayne Truss, board member of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, stressed that CPS' school closing plan is not about redirecting services to children.

"This thing is not about educating black and brown children," he said. "It's all about making money, and trust me, with these capital improvements that's going to happen and ongoing, a lot of people are going to make money."

Truss said collectively black leadership in the city of Chicago threw black children and educators "under the bus" regarding the closings.

He explained that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has plans in the works to build a DePaul University arena near McCormick Place, which is expected to receive millions in public funds. Truss said that money should go to public education instead.

"And we haven't had one black leader be outraged about that," Truss said. "Not one."

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