Monday, May 20, 2013

Reflections On The Uptown March

The RPNPS banner during yesterday's Uptown march.

Several RPNPS members joined with Northside Save Our Schools yesterday for the Long March through Uptown in support of the CTU-sponsored citywide march. It was a spectacular, uplifting day, lead in no small way by the tireless students from Stewart. The event was coordinated by Karen Zaccor and Stavroula Harris, and lots of citywide pro-school advocates joined us.

Wendy Katten and Matt Farmer
We started off at Trumbull, which remains on the hit list even though independent observers pointed  out that its "underutilized" label is highly inaccurate. Trumbull's highly regarded special education programming is not taken into account in the utilization formula, which calls for class sizes as high as 36. Nevertheless, Trumbull's hearing officer sealed the coffin on this venerable school, citing the positive self-promotion (for lack of a better phrase) from staff of McCutcheon and McPherson. In this way the Board was successful in pitting school communities against each other, no matter that the whole "underutilzated" label was basically a joke, based on nothing..

As we gathered under Sunday's brilliant sunshine, we listened to music from singer-songwriter Linda
Michelle Gunderson photo by Sandra Stone
, who rewrote This Land Is Your Land  for the public education movement here in Chicago.

CTU's Michelle Gunderson also lead the crowd in some folk music;  let me just apologize right now to the crowd for my version of harmony. It is a well known fact that whenever This Little Light Of Mine is playing, I can't keep my mouth shut.

We also sang We Shall Not Be Moved, which is not only a beautiful song, but a true statement. My observation is that the mayor may win his battle against neighborhood schools this year, but he's losing the war of public opinion.

We marched up one side of Clark Street and down the other, chanting what by now have become the stock chants of the movement: Hey Rahm, we're no fools. We won't let you close our schools! And so on. People joined in the march along the way, and others took pictures. I had the feeling there were a lot of out-of-towners in the Andersonville restaurants; they were snapping pictures like they'd just seen Oprah walking down the street. (For the record, Oprah would never be caught dead supporting neighborhood schools. Not in Chicago.) There was no negativity; it was thumbs up, cheering, and horn-honking the whole way.

We headed west, and the kids took over the microphone. If you ever want to motivate a crowd, let the kids take over the chanting; this is the great takeaway I have from the day. As we made our way toward the mayor's house, neighbor after neighbor raced to the door to cheer us on. It was immensely gratifying. I have never been exactly sure who Rahm Emanuel's political base is, but on this particular issue, his neighbors think he's crazy.

At Rahm's house, activist and RPNPS member Mark Hannan lead a beautiful, soft-spoken benediction.
Mark Hannan

It was quite a moment; Mark found words to connect all of us to the same deeply spiritual current, quoting richly from Obery Hendrick: "the needs of the people are holy." I about died right there and then because, well, it's actually true. You have to be really, really disconnected from the West side and the South side, and with Uptown to be blind to this massively broken covenant between the people who actually live in this town and the people making the decisions.

We stayed a bit longer in front of the mayor's house, which was fine by me because on the leafy blocks of Hermitage there's enough shade for everyone.

I'm glad we did because it gave us time to hear Susan Salidor and two friends (apologies, I didn't get the names) sing Susan Friedman's version of the Hebrew prayer Mi Sheberach, which you can listen to here. It was so beautiful I literally could not raise my audio recorder to capture it; I hope someone else did. The song is a prayer for spiritual healing, and I feel it was just exactly what this city will need in the coming year because great harm will eventually require great forgiveness, healing, and restoration.

I myself probably won't rise to the occasion, but there's no question in my mind about the great harm.

We turned the corner to land at Courtenay, which is being shuttered by CPS, in a plan so convoluted that it manages to offend virtually everyone who hears about it. I dread to try to re-explain it here. Let me see if I can. Courtenay, a magnet, is being closed. The Courtenay teachers are moving over to Stockton, a neighborhood school in a much less leafy neighborhood. The Stockton teachers are fired, I gather, or possibly they can apply for any of the jobs at the new version of Stockton, which will be both a neighborhood school and a magnet. The principal of the new school will be selected by the Courtenay LSC, I think. The current version of Courtenay doesn't have a principal at the moment.

Who the hell knows? I possibly have some details wrong on this one but I'm just here to tell you it's a dumb plan, and the Courtenay parents are outraged by it, as are the Stockton parents. At the march, a Courtenay parent rehashed a the story for the crowd. And we headed back east.

At Stockton, several people spoke in English and Spanish about the impact Stockton has had on their
Stockton families protest the firing of their teachers.
families over the years. By now we've all heard hundreds of these testimonials from around the city. Sadly, people's positive opinions about schools only seem to resonate with the board when they're coming from parents at charter schools. These neighborhood stories? I hate to say it, but it's hard to get respect for your story when the man in the audience would prefer that you simply move somewhere else.

And from there, we headed back through Uptown to Stewart, the site of the previous Uptown rally.

Stewart is being shut down for underutilization; it's kids are going to go to Brennemann. You can tell from the exterior of Stewart that the decision to shut this school down was made a long, long time ago. I don't know what will happen to this building or this space, but I do know that when the poor people are finally driven out of Uptown, the city will build a well-resourced public school for the families there. I didn't see anyone from Brennemann at the march, but it's possible someone was there; the striking memory I have of Brennemann goes back to the second Truman hearing. At that event, a student at Brennemann was evidently encouraged to remark during her testimony that it was, "an honor to be in your (Dr. Byrd Bennett's) presence today."

I'm all for polteness, but this kind of phrasing is usually reserved for the Dalai Lama, not an unresponsive public servant who goes from town to town clising schools where poor people live and who isn't even in the room.

Dr. Byrd-Bennett did not grace anyone with her presence at that hearing or any of the other hearings, for the record. But it might have been a strategically wise thing to say in the short run; we'll never know.  We'll see what the class sizes are at the new Brennemann; this might be one closure where they don't overwhelm the receiving school.

My heart is with these Stewart kids, though. I'd like to tell these kids something: they remind me of the
A Stewart mom fights on.
the great, passionate kids at Crane, who like others before them, stood up not only for their own school but for all the schools unfairly targeted by a school closing regime that has become, for all the abuse of the term, the status quo.

A couple of Stewart moms spoke, but the die is cast for this school; the alderman is totally on board with dispersing the poor people and importing shinier people into Uptown, which is supposed to be the new Disneyland of jazz, or something. I forget.

It was a good day for everyone on the march. I'm so proud of the kids leading the chants; the lesson you learn by standing up for what is right lasts just as long as the one you learn by beatifying a bully, and it's a much better lesson in the long run.

My hat is off to the organizers; I wasn't one of them. Karen Zaccor, Stavroula Harrissis, Mark Kaplan--- really, really excellent people working for the common good.

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