Chicago school protest turns up in an unusual location: Winnetka

Bullhorns, chants and funny money disrupt the peace on the quiet block where CPS official Tim Cawley lives.

February 20, 2012

Download Story
(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Chicagoans opposed to school closings and turnarounds ask Winnetka residents if they would "sell out" their schools.
(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Protesters visit CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley's home in Winnetka with an envelope of fake bills.

Blackthorn Road in north suburban Winnetka has probably never seen a street protest before. It’s just a block long, a private drive that ends in a pastoral cul-de-sac. The trees reach up and touch each other over the street. The huge homes are set back from the road.

Last week, at the top of the street, a school bus carrying residents from some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods let off three dozen passengers.

Dressed in blue T-shirts and raising Magic-Markered protest signs, they spread out down the quiet street.

CARTER: OK. Break up into groups, guys!  Let’s go, let’s hit every house. There goes one right here.

Ellyson Carter was on the bullhorn. He’s with the group Action Now. He surveyed the mansions.

CARTER: Do I got somebody who wants to tell the neighbors about Tim Cawley? All right, Brooke….
BROOKE: All right… well, to all of Tim Cawley’s neighbors, hello! To Tim Cawley: Give up the money, give up the resources to our schools.

Tim Cawley lives at the end of the block. He’s Chicago Public Schools’ Chief Administrative Officer. The protesters are mad at something Cawley said back in December: Basically that the district was not going to invest capital funds in schools that are performing so poorly they might someday be closed down. 

The policy has meant that kids at Herzl Elementary have had to abandon the third floor of their school, the roof is in such bad repair. It’ll be fixed only now that all the staff is going to be fired and a nonprofit brought in to run things. That doesn’t sit right with parent Lajuan Criswell, who talked about it on the bus ride to Winnetka.

CRISWELL: I have a first grader who attends Herzl Elementary School. I also have a mother who’s been a teacher at Herzl for the last 21 years. So I’m going today basically because I don’t see why someone who won’t send his child to a school in the city is making decisions about my child’s future, and about the children at any of these schools.

Chicago’s board of education gave Cawley a two-year waiver that lets him keep living in Winnetka until his daughter is ready for high school. Cawley’s family adopted her from abroad and didn’t want to uproot her again by moving. 

The protesters fan out down the block, ringing doorbells and chanting.

Thirty-three African Americans live in Winnetka, according to the 2010 Census. That means there are more black folks on this one block right now than live in the entire village of 12,000 people.

PROTESTER: We talked to one lady, and she was very nice. She said she had to pick her child up from school. But she took the money, and she took the papers. She said she would read it.

The money was play money the protesters brought as part of their shtick. It’s a jab at the paid protesters that have shown up this year at hearings to close schools down. Some of those protesters have acknowledged they were paid by pastors with close ties to the mayor to support school closings.

DRIVEWAY SPEECH: Would you support closing Winnetka schools like he do in our communities? Would you support it?

From Tim Cawley’s driveway, the protesters shouted out to the quiet Winnetka homes.

DRIVEWAY SPEECH: If I paid you $25? Would you accept it?

No one was home at Cawley’s suburban Tudor. The protesters left an envelope full of play money at his door, and marched back up the street just as police arrived.

The bus pulled up and the protesters headed back to Chicago, where the school board votes this week on whether to close or turn around 17 schools.


LaCreshia Birts contributed to this report.