In the Woodlawn neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, Cottage Grove Ave. serves as the dividing line between two violent gang territories, according to area residents.
And concerned community members say a Chicago Public Schools’ proposal to close John Fiske Elementary and send its students to Austin Sexton Elementary means students will be forced to to travel across the invisible barrier.
Cottage Grove, according to the proposal’s opponents, is a boundary not to be taken lightly.
“That’s a line you just don’t cross,” said Randy Pouncy, 22, a Sexton Elementary alumnus who said he’s been shot at too many times to count. “It’s so dangerous.”
Pouncy said the Gangster Disciples’ territory is on one side of Cottage Grove, while the Black P. Stones control the other side.
At the corner of Cottage Grove Ave. and 61st St. approximately 100 activists gathered Wednesday to protest against the proposal. The protesters chose that location because, they say, it is the “epicenter” of the two gang territories and serves as a cross-section of where the John Fiske and Austin Sexton schools are located.
To demonstrate the danger of crossing the intersection, five protesters poured red paint on their clothes and “died” in the street, stopping traffic in both directions. Chicago police confirm that five demonstrators were arrested and charged with obstructing traffic and misdemeanor wreckless conduct.
“Closing Sexton is just not right,” Pouncy said. “I don’t even hardly cross Cottage Grove now, let alone when I was in elementary school.”
The CPS proposal calls for Fiske Elementary, at 6145 South Ingleside Ave., to take over the Sexton school building, at 6020 South Langley Ave. The Sexton building will remain open, but will take Fiske’s name, students and staff, while the Fiske building is slated to close.
According to CPS, Sexton, a half-empty Level 2 school with 359 students, scored 21 out of a possible 42 performance policy points on November’s progress report. In 2012, 62.5 percent of students were meeting or exceeding state standards on the composite Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) scores.
Meanwhile, Fiske Elementary serves 220 students and is also a Level 2 school. But because the school scored 27 performance policy points and had 71.3 percent of students meet or exceed state standards on the composite ISAT last year, CPS claims the school action provides an opportunity for Sexton students to attend a higher performing school.
But demonstrators at Wednesday’s protest said the neighborhood is too dangerous to ask Fiske students to travel the additional six blocks.
“There will absolutely be an increase in violence in this neighborhood,” said Israel Munoz, 18, a participant in Wednesday’s protest and co-founder of Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools (CSOSOS).
“We need to send a message to CPS that if they go through with this plan the students will be in danger,” Munoz, a senior at Thomas Kelly High School in the Southwest Side neighborhood of Brighton Park, said.
As the district attempts to contend with an alleged $1 billion deficit and a “utilization crisis” of nearly 140 half-empty schools, a proposal to close 54 schools, consolidate 11 and turnaround another six, has incited protests across the city.
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which filed two class action lawsuits against the school closures Wednesday — the same day as the Sexton protest — is planning a massive three-day march and rally this weekend.
The Chicago Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the proposed school actions May 22, just two days after the CTU demonstrations.
“Moving these two schools together is a recipe for disaster,” said Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, 29, a protest participant and an organizer for STOP.
The location of Wednesday’s protest, the corner of 61st St. and Cottage Grove, is also the location where one of STOP’s founders, Damian Turner, was struck in the back with a stray bullet in 2010. Turner died at the age of 17 while en route to the hospital. His death has also speaked continued protests for a south side trauma center.
“School closures are killing people, the policies coming out of City Hall are killing people.”
Photos courtesy of Israel Munoz.