Chicago students protest drastic cuts: “Where’s our bailout?”

WYRallyEDIT

CHICAGO - Talib Kweli named his second solo album "The Beautiful Struggle"  and that's what it looked like when hundreds of high school students rallied May 5, protesting teacher layoffs and program cuts to public schools.

Students of all hues, schools and neighborhoods peacefully marched, ran and skipped to the State of Illinois Thompson Center to protest the massive cuts caused by state lawmakers' inability to solve a huge budget crisis.

"You cut, we cut" one handmade sign read.

Close to 1,000 students, mainly from Whitney Young High School, walked out of their classrooms, at 10:20 a.m. for the downtown rally. Chanting "Save our schools," the 14- to 18-year-olds took to the streets.

"We are speaking out for a unified Chicago student body," said one student speaker.

The state budget cuts mean:

• 20,000 teachers and staff laid-off statewide,

• 37 students per classroom,

• no sophomore sports,

• cuts to programs including after-school, summer, full-day kindergarten, magnet, Montessori, charters and International Baccalaureate.

First Lady Michelle Obama graduated from Whitney Young, a magnet school considered to be one of the best public schools Chicago has to offer. Two weeks ago, one-fifth of its teaching staff received pink slips.

Freshman Mia Espivo said, "With 37 [in a class], it'll be loud, crowded and hot. And the less we will want to learn."

Students were also outraged by the 51 percent dropout rate in Chicago Public Schools. "Where's our bailout?" they chanted.

Outside the state office building, they turned the plaza's benches into a makeshift platform and spoke from a bullhorn.

"I wrote this last night," said Whitney Young's Hilario, pulling a folded up piece of notebook paper from his pocket. Shaking it out, he began, "Nelson Mandela once said, 'Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.'"

That power surged through the crowd. Students said their collective and unified voice made them strong.

Another student took the bullhorn and asked for a moment of silence for all the young murder victims across the city. The rally fell silent.

"Chicago is the murder capital of the world, but look at us, we are united," the student said, referring to the horrific number of young people killed in the last years by shootings.

Organizer Diana Rosen made it clear the city administration and school did not support the students' action, although, she said, they supported their right to organize. The students knew there would be a consequence for walking out of class.

"And we'll all be going to Saturday school, right?" Rosen asked the crowd. (Having to go to school on Saturday was the punishment for cutting classes, students said.)

"Saturday school! Saturday school!" they cheered.

Whitney Young student Nico Segal played a bluesy-jazz version of the "Star Spangled Banner" on his trumpet. It was reminiscent of another generation with Jimi Hendrix galvanizing take on the national anthem.

Yet this rally had all the markings of a new generation coming of age and forced to fight for the future. With cell phones in hand, the protest en masse called the governor's office after his Springfield office number was read aloud.

One girl got through. She reported, "The woman said it was too loud. She couldn't hear what I was saying. But she heard the youth of Chicago, united!"

Musician Segal put it this way: "Something needs to be said about the youth. Such a diverse crowd coming together. This is what democracy looks like."

As the students began to leave and return to school, another demonstration began to march on the state's massive office building. This one was for mental health funding.

The budget crisis makes for a busy spring and a hard, difficult, yet "beautiful struggle."

Photo: Whitney Young student Hilario speaks through a bullhorn to some 1,000 CPS students at the state of Illinois building in Chicago on May 5. (PW)

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