For seven days straight, parents and students have occupied the field house of Chicago’s Whittier Dual Language Elementary School. Their demand: the field house should be turned into a much-needed library.

Chicago’s Gapers Block reported that “the sit-in has withstood several visits by the police” including an arrest threat that was averted “after more than 100 students, parents and community members pushed past barricades to support the protesters.”

A Chicago Public Schools (CPS) spokesperson responded by saying the building is structurally unsafe, and that the district lacks the money to renovate the structure. In conclusion: "That building has to come down."

But as the Chicago Tribune reported on Monday September 20th, when the parents hired an engineering firm, Ingenii LLC, to assess the building, they came to the opposite conclusion. "With the exception of the roof, the structure is in good condition and suitable for continued use."

CPS administrators rebutted with their own engineering firm, Perry & Associates LLC, who backed up their claim.

According to The Socialist Worker, CPS claims it will cost $354,000 to demolish the field house, but the parents’ own engineer estimated that for a fraction of that cost the building could be salvaged. More than that, protesters told a Chicago Sun-Times reporter that they have union workers who have volunteered to work for free—yes, for free—to help transform the building into a library.

The Socialist Worker’s Elizabeth Lasasz argues that behind the conflict over one school’s field house is a larger conflict over the fate of American schools, with undercurrents of racial and class tensions running through it:

"We want this school to be for us, for the community," said one mother. "In order to better educate the children, we need to educate the parents, too. Many of them are first-generation immigrants to the U.S. When they come to the meetings and computer classes in the field house, their confidence is built, and they become stronger voices in this school. We want that and need that in our parents."

Parents were initially given a room in the school for meetings, but it was the size of a closet—it held only about 10 people at a time. Saving the field house is about providing a vital resource in this community.

Lalasz outlines the parents’ future plans for developing the school, beyond adding a new library, and how these plans conflict with CPS’s plans for budget cuts and putting more emphasis on charter schools. She concludes:

The fight over this little field house is an important one in the larger struggle around educational rights, community self-determination and control over public land and institutions.

The online petition for “Solidarity with the Whittier Parents Sit-In” also calls attention to bad faith from the school board in earmarking funds for the field house’s demolition, and argues that more than just an old structure will be lost if it goes:

The Whittier Parents’ Committee has been organizing for seven years to push Pilsen alderman Daniel Solis to allocate some of the estimated $1 billion in Mayor Daley’s TIF coffers to their school for a school expansion. Cynically, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has earmarked a part of this money for the destruction of the school’s field house, which has been used for years as a center for community organizing and services. This would directly undermine the ability of the Whittier community to organize and struggle for educational rights.

ABC local news reported yesterday that parents are continuing to sit-in, even though CPS conceded the field house "will not be immediately demolished.”


Image credit: sarah-ji