A Pep Rally for the Heart of the Community by Jennie Biggs

Picture this:  school buses with foggy windows pull up to the curb on a freezing night.  Doors swing open and a wall of voices fill the air as bundled up families, teachers, administrators, and community members file off the bus. If this is a regular sports pep rally, it’s very organized compared to the ones you might remember from your high school days when you traveled to rival schools for big games. People carry signs and wear their school's colors and shirts.  “What school spirit!” you think to yourself. Then you notice more cars, vans and still more buses pulling up with something notable; the signs come from many different schools, not just two rival teams. What's going on?  A multi-school pep rally maybe? But wait. While there's definitely a feeling of school unity here, there's also a palpable black cloud of seriousness hovering.     

This, ladies and gentleman, this is a CPS Network Community Hearing on School Utilization.  Hundreds pack into public spaces, night after night.  CPS Network after CPS Network attempts to “engage” the community.  There have been three different formats for these meetings so one ever knows what to expect.  One has no idea if he or she will have the opportunity to actually “engage” with CPS.  There may be breakout sessions that allow one to talk to an “independent facilitator” (paid for by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, i.e. Walmart). Or there may be no breakouts. Or there may be optional breakouts.  There may be room for you or there may not be, depending on facility size and what time you get there. It’s a crap shoot.

Even with the uncertainties listed above, there are a few constants.  Hundreds will show up to wait in line to speak for 2 minutes.  They will publicly beg for their school to remain open as they describe the great things they have built at their schools.  There will be tears. Speakers will restate safety concerns: children have to cross gang lines; children have to cross busy streets or train tracks or travel through viaducts; with all the gun violence in our city, how will you ensure our kids are safe as they travel greater distances away from their home? 

Almost every parent brings up the rapid expansion of charter schools and exclaims, “We don't want them!”  Hundreds in the audience listen respectfully to fellow attendees and wave signs of support. They chant such things as, “Save Our Schools!  and “Whose Schools? Our Schools!  Whose Children? Our Children!”

Another certainty is this: as the night progresses, it becomes a more unified pep rally against school closings.  It is a pep rally for solid, stable communities that, of course, require the solid, stable infrastructure embodied by neighborhood schools.  It's a pep rally for the neighborhood school- for the heart of the community.  It's a pep rally for the community-school relationship.  It's a pep rally for the family-school relationship so commonly advocated by CPS. 

School communities strengthen throughout the night as they fight together for a common goal.  As people from different schools and different neighborhoods talk, compare notes, and cheer each other on, it makes everyone at this pep rally realize we cannot be pitted against each other.  Underutilized, efficient or overcrowded, we need to support each other and work to make all our schools stronger!  We rally together: “There is One Thing Clear To Me, The People Here Have Uni-ty!” 

Just as you feel hope build, you are ushered into a breakout session.  The CPS website, describes what you should experience here: “Independent facilitators will be on hand to ensure that school communities are engaged in the discussion and have opportunities to provide their feedback.”  Rather than being engaged however, you are penned in to witness yet another Power Point presentation. Community members squirm in seats, trying powerlessly to convince CPS to talk to engage them in a real exchange about their schools.  After the presentation, the crowd is finally asked to share “what makes their school special.”  Two to three different schools compete for a chance to relate this feedback to CPS. The school communities are clearly frustrated. They cannot take this any longer and leave in disgust.

As you wait for your ride home, you see school communities leaving breakout sessions, crying or looking as if they are in total shock.  No more sign waving or enthusiasm.  The uncertain outcome of the meeting tonight weighs heavily on faces: How many schools will CPS close? Will all the years of volunteerism and community involvement in schools be lost? How many will be consolidated or co-located with a charter?  Where will the thousands of misplaced students go?  How will they get to school everyday?  Will they get to school everyday?  Will these displaced families stay in Chicago?  How will our most vulnerable students- our homeless students; our students with special needs- cope?  What will happen to our school buildings- irreplaceable and rich in Chicago history?  Will the unemployed (teachers, administrators, PSRPs, lunchroom workers, building engineers and custodians) find new jobs?  Will they be able to keep their families in Chicago? 

You think of your own children and how devastated they would be if their school closed and they had to leave the school they love.  How would you explain this to them?  How would your family cope?  Would you consider leaving Chicago?  You file outside where everyone headed back to their buses, cars and vans, for a quieter ride back to the communities that you love, wondering what will come of our efforts tonight and what more we can do save our schools.