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Pilsen Parents Keep Pushing for School Improvements

Parents of Whittier Elementary School (1900 w. 23rd St, Chicago) students and members of the Pilsen Alliance thought it was strange when they saw school officials start to fix up the De La Cruz Academy public school, 2317 W. 23rd St.,  in Pilsen last spring, even after they’d been told it was going to be closed.

As the spring semester ended, De La Cruz received a new phone system and new rewiring around the building. Pilsen Alliance education organizer Gema Gaete tried reaching several district officials to ask why they would repair a building they were going to close down. She said no one had an answer for her.

Soon, the answer became clear. The United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) was granted a contract to open a new charter school in the De La Cruz Academy building, with $1 million in public funding. Citywide, UNO, known for its powerful political connections, has drawn controversy for receiving $98 million to build and operate charter schools.

Gaete and other neighborhood activists say De La Cruz was a vibrant community institution which parents and students were deeply devoted to, and they are angry it was closed in favor of an UNO school.

This is all part of the city’s Renaissance 2010 plan, which has been controversial, in part because it has resulted in a number of school closings. Critics say Renaissance 2010 interferes with neighborhood schools to make way for charters and contract schools that often do not serve all students, such as special education students and English language learners.

“The remaining public schools become the home for these students as they are basically ‘kicked off the island’ of charter schools,” Gaete said. “While some show that closings are the only way to restore what they consider a broken system, others insist that school closings are only another way to privatize.”

Neither Chicago Public Schools nor Ald. Danny Solis (25th), a former official with UNO, returned calls seeking comment.

Local activists say that rather than funding a new charter school, the city should have poured resources into the existing Whittier Elementary public school in Pilsen.

“I think it is unacceptable to deny us funds when we could clearly see their budget plan, CPS has straight up lied to us,” Gaete said.

Whittier is a school badly in need of resources, but the school has parent and community supporters who are willing to devote much effort to improving the school. An example is the new playground which welcomed students returning to school this fall. CPS had been declining to fund a new playground, so Pilsen Alliance and Whittier parents banded together to make it happen.

They collected over 500 signatures in March, testified at the Chicago Board of Education monthly meetings in April and May, went to Springfield to lobby state legislators and hosted a press conference about Whittier’s capital infrastructure needs in June.

The parents wouldn’t accept no for an answer, and CPS eventually allocated $200,000 for two new playgrounds at Whittier.

Gaete compared CPS’s relenting to fund the playground to “putting a band-aid on a balloon” before it pops and results in even greater protest.

Pilsen resident Raul Rodriguez, 51, is thrilled with the new playground at Whittier, where his grandson is a student. “To tell you the truth it looked like they hadn’t changed the playground since the early ‘80s because of how horribly bad condition it was in,” Rodriguez said.

Karina Monroy, 29, whose daughter also attends Whittier Elementary, said, “It was about time that the school (district) came up with funds to build a new playground.” She said the old merry-go-round “looked like the most dangerous merry-go-round in the history of play equipment.”

Meanwhile, the closure of De La Cruz has created new challenges at Whittier Elementary, which for the first time now has seventh- and eighth-grade students, displaced from De La Cruz. Space is very limited; there is no computer lab, no library and some of the classes eat lunch in the hallway since the cafeteria is too crowded.

The Pilsen Alliance and Whittier Elementary parents now hope to continue their playground success story by making Whittier Elementary a more comfortable place for the newcomers. They want to see a larger cafeteria, a new art room, a library, a computer lab and additional classrooms for the new seventh- and eighth-graders.

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