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A powerful organizing model to strengthen neighborhood schools

by Stacy Davis Gates - CTU Legislative and Political Director  |  07/13/2017

Three years ago, delegates from Hubbard High School, Peck and Pasteur elementary schools organized with parents, stakeholders from community groups, Chicago Public Schools and the political power structure—with the full support of the Chicago Teachers Union—to strengthen neighborhood schools.
The stakeholders formed the Southwest Education Action Council (SWEAC), a group born from the threat that neighborhood school communities would be undermined by an expansion of the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) Charter School Network. Originally, CPS had made funding available to expand UNO in the area, a move that would have hurt neighborhood schools. But the educators in those communities organized for a different outcome, and ultimately those funds were redirected to their schools. 
Teacher delegates set the tone. It took real organizing by teachers to make this happen, and that organizing paid off. The delegates committed to collaborating with each other to save and expand their neighborhood school communities. They planned meetings and invited stakeholders. The school leaders controlled the narrative and outlined the principles expressed in their previous interactions with stakeholders in the community.  
Parents, educators and community members sat at a table of stakeholders anchored by the political leadership in the area—Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, 13th Ward Alderman Marty Quinn and 23rd Ward Alderman Michael Zalewski. During the process, delegates benefited significantly from dealing directly with the community. They built real bonds as they canvassed the community, held meetings and spoke to parents directly. Each stakeholder had a seat at the table. The aldermen convened the meetings, everyone worked for consensus and the results of this organizing have been tremendous.
In CPS’ original plans, Hubbard High School was to lose its sports fields to a new middle school, which was to be created to relieve overcrowding at Peck and Pasteur elementary schools. After organizing efforts spearheaded by the delegates, SWEAC determined that Hubbard’s athletic programs would not lose their sports fields. Stakeholders decided instead that the school’s sports fields needed upgrading—not elimination. Now the school’s sports fields are in high demand and have helped plug the holes in Hubbard’s operations budget, even as CPS continues to cut the school’s budget.
The overcrowding at Peck and Pasteur was relieved when grades 5-8 moved to the brand new Richardson Middle School in December 2016. Aldermen Quinn, with support from the community, decided to push the Chicago Board of Education to open the school in the middle of the school year. This move was enacted to ensure that the school communities would suffer as little upheaval as possible during the transition. Every educator and student from Peck and Pasteur moved into their new middle school during the holiday break. 
While there were many challenges throughout this effort, none was more challenging than when the newly hired principal at Richardson decided to not rehire ten of the school’s teachers for the following school year. That decision reactivated the SWEAC team, which organized the members of the community to demand that the teachers be rehired. They phone banked, canvassed neighborhoods, petitioned parents and held meetings. They worked closely with Speaker Madigan and Aldermen Quinn and Zalewski. 
The combined efforts of the SWEAC and our delegates at the schools forced CPS to uphold its original agreement and all ten positions were restored.  
The SWEAC collaboration is a powerful model for educators, parents and community residents fighting for adequately resourced neighborhood schools across the city. The delegates assumed leadership and collaborated with the stakeholders to provide Southwest Side students and families the school communities they deserve. 
This is a model we continue to use to protect our schools’ resources and communities, and it’s a model that can work for educators and parents fighting for better outcomes for neighborhood schools throughout Chicago.
Chicago Teachers Union