Martha Tovar participated in her first protest on Wednesday.
The focus was on the 54 schools that Chicago Public Schools officials are shuttering in what is believed to be one of the largest such moves in national history.
Tovar explained that she started to become involved when she learned about the possible closure of William Penn Elementary School, the North Lawndale school that Emily Maldonado, her autistic daughter, attends.
In four years Emily has gone in four years from not being able to speak to reading, writing, understanding numbers and communicating in English and Spanish.
Tovar said that she went to the event even though Penn, which was on an earlier list of 129 schools slated for possible closure, will be open in September.
“It’s my first demonstration,” Tovar said. “This year the school is not going to close, but probably next year, it could close.”
Other Penn parents also became first-time educational protesters on Wednesday.
They’re part of the 16 percent of Latino students attending Penn-a figure that has tripled in the past decade. The number of Limited English Proficiency students has also grown, rising from just 2 percent in 2002 to 14 percent in 2012. This change has come during a time of decreasing enrollment in Penn as a whole. The number of students at Penn has fallen from nearly 600 students in 2003 to a low of 314 in 2010 before increasing each of the past years to 371 in 2012. Even with the greater enrollment the past two years, the total number of students has dropped 38 percent since 2003.
Many of the Latino children who attend Penn receive special education services, and their concern about the school’s future has prompted them to get involved.
By so doing, they are continuing a lengthy tradition of parental advocacy around education issues within the Latino community, according to Cristina Pacione-Zayas, education director of non-profit organization Latino Policy Forum.
“A trend that you see in the Latino community is the constant demand of equity for resources and for everything that is ultimately a right, not a privilege,” Pacione-Zayas said. “With the school closure piece, it’s the largest that has ever happened in history. As far as parents organizing, this is a big example of what has been going on for decades.
“It’s always been a fight,” Pacione-Zayas said.
National, local activism
The fight has been going on for more than 65 years.
Mexican American parents successfully sued to desegregate California schools in the landmark 1947 case, Mendez v. Westminster. The lawsuit was part of the legal foundation that culminated in the Warren Court’s unanimous 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education that declared that separate but equal facilities in education are inherently unequal.
Pacione-Zayas cited educational activism by Mexican-American and Puerto Rican parents in Chicago going back to the 1970s.
“On a national scale, the black Panthers and the breakfast program were the spark for the inspiration of the Young Lords that turned political to start organizing around educational issues,” she said. These issues included overcrowding, the lack of sufficient and high-quality bilingual resources and the absence of Latino faculty, staff and administrators.
In the late 80s the work continued in the Puerto Rican community, with specific attention to the alarming dropout rates that rose as high as 70 percent, according to an academic study. In the late 90s many Little Village turned their attention again to the issue of overcrowding, Pacione-Zayas said. The community only had a single high school, Farragut, despite having one of the city’s largest number of youth under 18 years old.
Gang boundaries made it very dangerous for students on the West Side of the community to attend Farragut, but the system did not respond to requests to construct a building there.
Instead, Mexican mothers and grandmothers went on a hunger strike at the corner of 31st Street and Kostner to pressure CPS leadership into redeem their earlier promise of constructing a new building.
Pacione-Zayas explained that the public organizing was just one part of the strategy, adding that these efforts continued after the school opened in 2005. “After the strike, community and parents were heavily involved in designing the school,” she said.
More recently, in the spring of 2011 activists at Whittier Elementary organized a 25-day sit-in to protest the planned building of a library inside the school, saying it would take away space from special education students.
Special Education Lawsuit
Heriberto López Alberola’s daughter Isabella is a special education student at the Ogden International School of Chicago.
Alberola recently filed suit against CPS saying that it denies on a systematic basis the diagnosis of dyslexia that he asserts Isabella has. Symptoms include reversing letters when reading and being overwhelmed by large sections of text.
Click here for a copy of the lawsuit filing.
Alberola, a lawyer, said that the lawsuit was not his preferred option-he called it “nuclear”-and that he only took it after many attempts to have CPS do what he said was “the right thing.”
He also said that in advocating for his daughter Isabella he is simply acting in the same was as his parents, Cuban emigres, did for him during his childhood in southern Florida.When Alberola barely spoke English at the end of his first grade year, school authorities suggested keeping him back a year for additional study.
But his parents, who themselves spoke little English, did not accept that recommendation.
Instead, they found an interpreter and explained that they wanted Alberola to be promoted.
The school agreed, on the condition that he gain a greater English proficiency by the end of second grade.
Alberola said the point of the lawsuit is not only to benefit his daughter, but to help many other Latino parents and families whose children suffer from the same condition.
“I didn’t embark on this mission as a crusade,” Alberola said. “But I consider that as a family we have a moral and ethical obligation to speak and advocate for so many children and families in similar situation, who, by life circumstances, don’t have the same knowledge or resources.”