Talk about dedication. A group of Chicago parents and community members have staged a round-the-clock sit-in at a field house adjacent to Whittier Elementary School in Pilsen, demanding that the dilapidated building be turned into a school library.
Protesters want the field house turned into a school library.
With shouts of "We want a library!" ringing out in the largely Hispanic neighborhood on the lower west side of Chicago, as many as 30 parents and children have defied local police since September 15, occupying the building and spending their time creating signs and saying the rosary.
The protesters hope the Chicago Public Schools district (CPS) will reverse its decision to raze the building to make way for more greenery and build a soccer field.
But that's not going tohappen, says Monique Bond, a spokeswoman for CPS, explaining that the Department of Buildings has cited the structure with a number of safety violations and that there "were always plans to level" it because it's unstable.
Based on a structural report conducted by the engineering firm Perry & Associates, the field house has "substantial structural and architectural defects." Bond says the district lacks money for a renovation, which would cost three times as much as the $354,000 demolition, which is already in the budget. However, parents have commissioned their own report with the engineering firm Ingenii LLC, which says that "with the exception of the roof, the structure is in good condition and suitable for continued use."
Built in the 1800s, the small field house, nicknamed "La Casita," sits on the school playground but has been used illegally as a community center for childcare and for English as a second language classes, says Bond, adding that the request for a school library is only a recent development. "They've always wanted to preserve the field house, and building a school library is a new demand, but we can't do that," she says. Bond further stated that while demolition is not imminent, the safety and security of students—as well as those inside the field house—are a priority.
"They remain on the premises illegally," says Bond, explaining that there's an ongoing investigation into who gave the protesters keys to the building. "This is a very delicate situation. We need to secure the site because there are safety issues involved."
With about 300 mainly Hispanic students, Whittier Elementary only has classroom libraries. Many parents feel these are inadequate for the Title I school, where 40 percent of its students fall below the poverty line. But according to Bond, classroom libraries are common, with more than 160 schools in Chicago without libraries.
The parents were threatened with arrest last Friday, following a day of negotiations with Chicago police about vacating the building. This led to a groundswell of support from 100 teachers, parents, and student onlookers who pushed past police barricades to join the protest. The police disbanded and left the area without any incident. One community protester, Gema Gaete, shouted, "We are fighting for books, for wanting to read. We should be commended not reprimanded."
The protesters had received word that Chicago Public School CEO Ron Huberman would meet with them about their demands on Monday. But on that day a CPS spokesman said there would be no such meeting until protesters left the field house.
"Until we have on paper and with a signature from Mr. Huberman telling us that we get the library...we're going to stay here," says Araceli Gonzalez, whose 10-year-old daughter attends Whittier. Protesters say they plan to stay put for as long as it takes them to meet face-to-face with school officials.
This article originally appeared in the newsletter Extra Helping.