CHICAGO - Parents and community leaders in the predominantly Mexican Pilsen neighborhood here say they are staging an around-the-clock sit-in at an elementary school field house until Chicago Public School officials and elected representatives meet with them.
The field house, known as "La Casita," is adjacent to the Whittier Dual Language Elementary School.
The parents claim Chicago Public School officials are breaking an agreement they made with the parents' group last fall after the parents led a 43-day sit-in to save the field house. The parents said all they wanted was a new library for their children. They asked that La Casita serve as its home as well as a community center.
Whittier is one of more than 150 schools in Chicago without a library and the parents saw the field house on school grounds as the ideal location.
The first sit-in drew national headlines and ended after both sides agreed the field house would not be demolished and be turned over to the Whittier Parents Committee. And no future plans would be made for a new library without CPS-parent dialogue.
But parents claim CPS is breaking that promise.
The school board says it is following through on the commitment made by former-CPS CEO Ron Huberman to renovate the field house and build a new library.
On Thursday, June 23, CPS began preparations to start work on the new library inside the main school building on the second floor, which parents say was not part of their agreement. The parents decided to form a picket line blocking the entrance to the playground as a trucker tried to deliver a dumpster that would be used to cart away debris from the second floor.
Building a library inside the main building rather than using the field house as agreed upon would displace special needs students in an already overcrowded school, parents charge.
Police were called to the scene, but no arrests were made.
"We just want to be heard," said parent Lisa Angonese. "The field house has been ignored by CPS for years, and they don't want to help us fix it," she said.
Angonese said the space has been a safe haven for the children and is used as a lending library with all donated books, many of which are in Spanish. After school programs, including English, writing and various art classes for the children and adults, are held there, she added.
"We're like a family here and we just want CPS and our elected officials to address our concerns," said Angonese. "But they're making us feel like we have no voice, and it's a crying shame."
Parents note a non-profit architectural firm drafted a pro-bono design for the parents to renovate La Casita, which would be turned into an all-green environmentally friendly library and multi-purpose instructional room.
After the first sit-in ended, the parents said they were promised two sources of money for La Casita's renovation. They were promised $364,000 through 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis on top of another $200,000 of state funds set aside by State Rep. Eddie Acevedo. Both elected officials represent the area where the school is located.
The school board says it has no intent to tear down the existing field house and says the building will remain rented to the parents group for $1 a year. However, the parents say they came across a demolition permit, dated May 31, that clearly calls for La Casita's removal, as well as the conversion of the occupied classroom for the new library use.
In a correspondence with the parents, new CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard wrote, "We are currently making very difficult decisions and financial sacrifices across the school district to offset the massive $712 million deficit, and unfortunately, we still do not have capital funds for the project you are requesting."
But Gema Gaete, a member of the parent group says this is not about the money, it's about holding CPS accountable.
"Of course we're not against building a library in the main building but there is absolutely no space for it," said Gaete. "This is a bigger issue than just saving La Casita, its about building political and community empowerment. We're asking CPS to stop spending our money and come talk to us. If Brizard says he's about social justice and the community, then he should meet with us, not send 15 police officers. We're not criminals; we only want what's best for our children and our community."
Gaete added, "We plan to be here all day and night. We just want to start a dialogue, and Brizard has the power to not rush this decision."
Photo: Whittier Parent Committee member Lisa Angonese with a young student inside the La Casita lending library, June 23, 2011. (Pepe Lozano/PW)