Just after final classes let out at Jean D. Lafayette Elementary Wednesday, three parents and their children occupied a classroom for hours in opposition of the Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) plan to close the school for good this month.
The up to nine parents and children, some of whom were students at the school, occupied the classroom at about 2:30 p.m. Several police officers were on scene, but no arrests were made.
More than 50 protestors gathered outside Lafayette to show their solidarity. Education activists linked arms and formed a human chain in front of the school’s entrance.
“We’re not going to stop fighting,” said Windy Pearson, a member of Action Now, outside Lafayette. “We have people who are adamant about what is happening to their schools and to their kids and to our community, and this is just one of the many protests that will go on in regards to these schools.”
Lafayette, in Humboldt Park, is one of 50 schools the Chicago Board of Education approved last month to close in efforts to address the district’s reported $1 billion budget deficit and underutilization crisis.
One parent left the classroom with his children shortly after 2:30 p.m. once police arrived at the school, activists at the scene said. Police officers allegedly threatened to arrest the man and turn his children over to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, Pearson said.
The other two parents, Rousemary Vega and her husband Jesus Ramos, along with their four children, remained in the classroom until about 6 p.m. Two of the couple’s children attend Lafayette.
Vega eventually left the classroom, because she said police officers threatened to send her and her huband to jail for 10 hours.
“It was causing anxiety on my children, and as a parent I have to react, and I have to make a choice, which was to come out for my children,” Vega said outside the school as she wiped away tears.
Ramos attempted to stay in the classroom for longer, but he said police officers started “dragging” him out of the room.
“They were like, ‘If you resist, it’s going to make it worse,'” Ramos said after exiting the school. “So I tried [to stay inside], but they started shoving me out the door.”
Here’s what Vega said upon exiting the school, as well as some scenes from Wednesday’s protest:
Frederic Chopin Elementary is Lafayette’s designated welcoming school for the next academic year.
But parents and activists said they are outraged because it is not clear what will become of Lafayette’s Merit School of Music Program, which has an award-winning string orchestra. Pearson explained that the welcoming school does not have the capacity to take over Lafayette's music program and instruments.
Vega said her daughter, who is part of the school’s music program, had to give back her cello to the school Wednesday.
“(Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel) promised a better education, yet my daughter had to return her instrument today, an instrument that I won't be able to afford for her,” Vega said. “She was forced to give it in today. Where is the quality education in that?”
Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) Vice President Jesse Sharkey issued a statement Wednesday in support of Vega and the others who participated in the sit-in.
He said parents and others are especially bitter about Lafayette closing.
“The parents, teachers and staff at the school really felt as though the decision to close it was an illegitimate one—in the service of students and the importance of that school to the neighborhood,” he said. “But the board jammed that decision through and people are determined to be heard.”
In addition, the fate of the school’s low incidence special education program for students with autism or severe disabilities is uncertain. More than 30 percent of Lafayette's school population is comprised of students with special needs.
Janet Meegan, a parent at Ellen Mitchell Elementary School who participated in Wednesday’s demonstration, called it “criminal” to move the school’s autistic students. The special education program has been at the school for about 15 years, she explained.
Some of Lafayette’s students with special needs are being sent to James Russell Lowell Elementary School, Meegan said. Progress Illinois recently reported on the challenges some parents with autistic children at Lafayette have faced while trying to re-enroll their students into a new school for next year.
“Now you’re going to take kids that need the most stability out of their safe environment where they know everybody and split up the program and shove some of them over at Lowell,” she said. “I would think any educator would say that is just not the way to go about educating these kids at all.”
In addition to its music and special education programs, Ramos added that the school has a library.
“We have everything the mayor’s promising us. We have it right here, right now,” Ramos said. “Why dismantle it?”
Holly Krig, a Portage Park resident, joined in on the protest outside Lafayette with her toddler daughter. She said the fight against school closings needs to involve current, future and past CPS parents.
“Certainly this is disproportionately affecting parents and students who live in neighborhoods that are predominately African-American and Latino,” Krig explained. “It’s absolutely racist and classist what’s happening, but it’s going to affect everybody, and we need to join in this fight all together.”
CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett released the following statement Wednesday about the school actions:
As we end this school year, it is time for us as a city to begin the work of creating a deep and lasting change in our schools to ensure a better life for our children, a better Chicago workforce and a better future for our city. Everyone has a shared responsibility to ensure students have a safe and smooth transition to their new school in the fall and are on a path to a bright future. We owe them our very best.
At the end of the day, CPS officials and Emanuel are going to do what they want, Pearson said.
“But in the meantime, they’re still going to have to look at us, and they’re still going to have to look at themselves in the mirror,” she said. “They’re going to have to stand before God in the long-run. But most importantly, the ballot boxes [are] what they need to be concerned about.”