Activists, parents 'occupy' school slated for turnaround

Sit-in marks new level of opposition to school closings, turnarounds

February 18, 2012

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Latoya Walls speaks to a reporter from inside Piccolo Elementary Friday evening. She opposes the school's proposed turnaround.

A group of parents and activists have taken over a West Side Chicago public school, marking a new level of opposition to district plans to close or turn around schools.

Tents were set up Friday evening outside Piccolo Elementary, and parents, students and activists were occupying classrooms on the first floor, with plans to stay there.

The school district wants to completely re-staff the school—firing the principal, teachers and ancillary staff like the lunch ladies.

All the students would continue at Piccolo, which would be run by the nonprofit Academy for Urban School Leadership, a teacher training academy with close ties to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration. AUSL specializes in turning around failing schools. In all, the district is proposing to completely re-staff a record 10 schools by fall.

Parent Latoya Walls has a first grader at Piccolo and was planning to spend the night there late Friday.

"We are not going nowhere until the mayor answers us!" said Walls. She and other parents said they want their current principal and teachers to remain. Walls says Piccolo has had three principals in five years.

Many of those sitting in at the school were not Piccolo students or parents. Occupy Chicago was calling on its supporters to bring out tents and warm clothes to the school. Pizzas were delivered to protesters through windows.

Rory Fanning said he came to support parents. Fanning works with Communities United Against Foreclosure and Evictions, which helps homeowners and renters occupy foreclosed buildings. "School closings and evictions are kind of all concentrated in the same neighborhoods. Unfortunately, I think it's pretty intentional. But I'm really happy to see the parents fighting back," he said.

Legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild were on the scene as well.

In general, “we are here to make sure everybody behaves well, especially the Chicago police and the Board of Education," said volunteer observer Rob Poe.

Various officials from the district's safety and security office visited the school and met with protesters. Police were also present.

One of the protesters live streamed the scene from inside Piccolo. At one point, organizers expressed doubt they could hold the school through the weekend. There is no school Monday.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the school district shares parents' passion for their children's education. But she says Piccolo has failed its students, and the goal is to get them on a path to success. AUSL elementary schools showed greater gains on last year's standardized exams than the district average.

The Board of Education votes Wednesday on whether to close or turn around some 17 schools, including Piccolo.