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LGBTQs take education to the streets [2 September, 2009]

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Several families of Chicago Public School (CPS) students, teachers and education activists turned out August 26 for a protest at CPS headquarters at 125 S. Clark, where the Chicago Board of Education was due for a budget meeting.

Their focus was a notification that the UNO (United Neighborhood Organization) Charter Network had sought Chicago Board of Education’s President Michael Scott’s permission to open a school on the site of Juana Ines De la Cruz Middle.  The latter has been shut down since June, citing a lack of funds for capital improvement.

The CPS system has been the focus of attention of the city’s educators, parents and students for many years.  Continual debates about the state of the system have raised various and often conflicting ideas about whether change is needed and, if so, how to bring it about.  The Renaissance 2010 program has been among the most controversial among the proposed changes to CPS, especially because it has resulted in a number of school closings.  While some attest that closings are the only way to revamp what they consider a broken system, others insist that school closings are only another way to privatize CPS and that functioning schools are being shut down to make way for charter schools.

Several signs had messages like, “No neighborhood schools left behind.”  Alejandra Ibanez, executive director of Pilsen Alliance, one of the main organizers of the protest, said to Windy City Timesthat the closing of De la Cruz “revealed a double standard.”  According to her, schools like Whittier (a “World Language Magnet Cluster School,” according to its Web site, that is currently facing deteriorating conditions, and whose parents and students were also present) were still waiting to be declared Americans with Disablities Act-compliant “but a UNO Charter school got its notice of compliance in approximately three weeks.”

The protest featured significant LGBTQ presence, as members of the group Gender JUST (GJ) joined in with signs like, “Queer youth say no to Rennaissance 2010” as they marched and chanted outside the building [Full disclosure: This reporter is a member].  Sam Finkelstein of GJ said that the group was there to “raise the voices of queer youth in the larger debate around privatization and militarization.”  GJ has recently been in talks with CPS CEO Ron Huberman about implementing policies that would positively affect LGBTQ youth.  In that context, Finkelstein said, “A lot of the policies we fight for would be moot under Renaissance 2010 because charter schools and contract schools don’t have the same processes of accountability; they don’t have to follow district-wide guidelines and there would be no centralized enforcement of anti-discrimination and other policies.”

Protestors were also pointing to what they saw as the politics of gentrification affecting the displaced students.  As their signs and chants indicated, teachers, students and families were especially troubled by the fact that their school was shut down even after the Illinois State Board of Education designated it a “spotlight school.”  One woman’s sign was addressed to Michael Scott: “You closed our award-winning middle school because “It wasn’t viable” or “worth fixing” but now you’re going to let an UNO Charter in? Exactly who is worthy in your eyes?” Finkelstein said that “the larger process of gentrification affects LGBTQ people.  We are present within the communities on whom it has an impact.”

Erica Meiners, an out lesbian and associate professor of education and women’s studies at Northeastern Illinois University, was also there to support the protestors.  She said, “I’m here to demonstrate my commitment for equitable public education for all, and for a transparent process.”  She said that the situation of De la Cruz and Whittier were examples of the “lack of democratic decision-making based on the facts.  We know that when democratic processes are not followed, our most vulnerable communities who don’t have powerful communities advocating for them are the ones to suffer, and these include queer students, students with disabilities, and the poor.”

Inside, the board meeting was packed to capacity with students, families and educators who were there to ask questions.  WCT spoke with Malon Edwards, CPS spokesman, who would only say that the matter of De la Cruz was not going to be discussed at the day’s meeting.  The budget was passed unanimously by the board. 

Originally published in Windy City Times, 2 September, 2009.

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