On a chilly day in early November, yellow caution tape stretches across entrances to the Thompson Center, a sign of the action to come. By 4 p.m., some 100 Chicago Public Schools students have gathered outside, and several hundred more are heading their way from Randolph and Clark.
“Save our schools, save our teachers” they chant. “People over profits” and “Where’s the funds” they demand in hand-scrawled signs.
Eventually 600 to 800 strong, according to organizers’ estimates, the students begin circling the massive building to protest the threatened layoff of thousands of CPS teachers and the elimination of school programs. This protest, held Nov. 6 by students from mainly selective-enrollment schools, is one of the biggest that CPS students have conducted in a bid to protect already dwindling resources at their schools.
On Oct. 5, students from Roosevelt, Foreman and Schurz high schools held a walkout on Roosevelt’s grounds.
On Oct. 28, Walter Payton College Prep senior Matthew Mata helped stage a “study-in” outside CPS headquarters during the School Board meeting.
On Oct. 29, 15 students and staff from Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood marched to a nearby Bank of America branch in protest of so-called toxic swaps that have drained money from their schools.
On Nov. 13, students held another massive rally, roughly the same size as the one a week earlier, at the Thompson Center.
The Nov. 6 protest was born largely out of a Facebook discussion among several students from selective-enrollment high schools, including Jones junior Darcy Palder and Payton senior Matthew Mata.
“You don’t realize how much you love something until it’s kind of out of our reach,” Palder said at the rally. “And when I started realizing that we might not have those special classes that we love or those teachers who have helped us so much, I realized that we needed to do something.”
A history of student activism
These rallies and study-ins are the latest in a long history of student activism in Chicago.
In the late 1990s, Jackson Potter, now chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union, was a student activist at Whitney Young High School, which joined Lane Tech to protest over federal budget cuts. While there was some collaboration among high schools, he says, it wasn’t as “robust” as today’s efforts. And students today are more often taking the initiative rather than depending on teachers to get the ball rolling.
A more substantive difference, Potter adds, is that today’s student leaders more readily recognize racial and economic inequalities.
“Usually, you begin seeing resistance around things students find disturbing,” he says. “But what’s new and different … is the number of students who then act immediately and start making the connections.”
In 1997, the Mikva Challenge was born as a tribute to former White House Counsel, Judge and U.S. Congressman Abner Mikva and his wife Zoe, a teacher and lifelong education activist. Focused on participation in the political process and community building, the organization now serves more than 6,000 students at 100 Chicago area schools.
In 2007, several community-based organizations across the city launched Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) to give students of color a voice in school district policies. A long-running focus has been the high suspension and expulsion rates in CPS and the burden they place in particular on students of color.
VOYCE helped craft and lobby for passage of the bill, which they describe as “perhaps the most aggressive and comprehensive effort ever made by a state to address the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’”
Six years after the formation of VOYCE, another group of CPS students formed the Chicago Students Union in response to school closings. In addition to participating in the current protests over budget cuts, union members encouraged their peers to support the fight for Dyett High School.
Meanwhile, discussions in social media have raised the question of whether teachers and adults from advocacy organizations are behind the current student protests.
Ed Hershey, a teacher at Lindblom, thinks the level of adult influence varies. While students took the initiative to create posters for the Lindblom protest, he says, the idea to take action stemmed from teachers.
On the other hand, one of his former students organized an anti-violence demonstration in early 2013. “I’d say we inspired them, but it really seems like they’ve taken up that cause on their own at this point.”
What about neighborhood schools?
Student activists are not without their own internal issues.
For example, Mata of Payton Prep says he has received criticism, even from fellow Payton students, that selective-enrollment students are leading the protests, when it is neighborhood schools that suffer the most from budget cuts.
“But what they don’t understand is … It takes time to reach every single school,” Mata says.
He estimates that the 150 who attended the Oct. 28 study-in hailed from Payton, Jones, Lane Tech, Northside, Whitney Young, Infinity, Lincoln Park; and Senn high schools. He says he reached out to other schools, including Kenwood, Taft and Curie. But with just four days to plan the rally, he says, it was difficult for neighborhood schools to be represented.
“We found out a lot that of students from neighborhood schools actually could not make it ‘cause they lived in too dangerous neighborhoods to make it here,” Palder said of the Nov. 6 turnout. “But a lot of them are supporting us.”
While Hershey of the Lindblom faculty agrees that a protest’s distance from a school can determine who shows up, he thinks that selective-enrollment students are more comfortable taking on leadership roles and that their teachers can devote more time to helping them.
“To get it running well, you need a substantial commitment from somebody,” he says, noting that some neighborhood schools don’t always have this.
In attempts to resolve the imbalance, Mata recently sat down with other CPS students, parents, teachers and community organizers to set up regional meetings that are scheduled to start at the beginning of next month. He also plans to meet monthly with all CPS schools to give everyone a voice in planning future events. He says the logistics are still being ironed out.
“These are just steps … for something bigger that needs to happen,” Mata says.
This story was updated on Nov. 24 to correct a paraphrase made by Ed Hershey.