Chicago’s Social Justice High School: Born out of Struggle and the Struggle Continues
In a predominantly Mexican neighborhood on Chicago’s west side, high school students are leading a fight to “rewind to August 6” and restore staff at their school. Just before classes began, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district sacked the principal, then fired two veteran teachers the next week.
During the first two days of the school year, students at Social Justice High School staged a sit-in, planned a community forum, dramatized the suppression of their voices by refusing to speak in class, then, on August 31, struck classes and marched through the Little Village community. Laid-off teachers Angela Sangha and Katie Hogan were among the featured panelists at an August 29 indoor solidarity rally for the Chicago Teachers Union in their bargaining with CTU. Hogan concluded her speech that night by putting the school’s fight in the context of the approaching teacher strike:
“My greatest fear realized was losing my job, losing my respect, in front of the students who saw me escorted out by security. But, I’m standing before you unafraid. A lot of us are going to have to face our fears as we approach this strike date. Let me tell you, people who have lost everything—such as ourselves—and have nothing to lose, are really dangerous. So, CPS, we are putting you on notice: our union will not take it anymore, the students will not take it anymore, and the community will not take it anymore!”
A Legacy of Struggle
Social Justice High School, or SoJo, was already on the map of struggles to expand and democratize public education before this month’s wave of student protest. The Little Village High School campus itself is the product of a yearlong campaign demanding CPS build a second high school in Little Village, which culminated with neighborhood parents starving themselves in a 19-day hunger strike in 2001.
Little Village (the biggest concentration of Mexicans in the Midwest) and neighboring Lawndale (part of the African American west side) are among Chicago’s densest neighborhoods with the highest number of school aged children and young adults. However, at the time, the area’s 4,000+ students were served solely by overcrowded Farragut High, which enrolled only half that number. During years of promises by CPS of a second high school for Little Village, district funds were instead used for “selective enrollment” college-prep schools, Northside and Walter Payton, which have among the whitest student bodies in the CPS system.
Challenging and ultimately overcoming these apartheid education policies in Chicago has always required militant direct action. In 1965, up to 100,000 African American students boycotted Chicago Public Schools to win more equal funding and a degree of community control for schools in Black neighborhoods; when the Mexican-American and Puerto Rican movements grew stronger in 1970s they successfully pressured CPS to create Benito Juarez High in Pilsen and Roberto Clemente Community Academy in Humboldt Park in the hearts of the city’s North and South side Latino communities.
Awareness of this history is embedded in the culture at SoJo—indeed, emblazoned on the class t-shirts, which read “Born out of Struggle.” The curriculum and pedagogy of the school, which emphasizes critical thinking and self-determination, were designed with the assistance of radical educators in the Teachers for Social Justice network.
Many of the teachers at SoJo have been militants and leaders of the CTU, while its student body has had consistent involvement in activism for education and racial justice. Many of the juniors and seniors who led the student strike on August 31 had previously participated in walkouts in April and May 2010 against school closures and Arizona’s anti-immigrant State Bill 1070.
...And the struggle continues
This is the history of resistance that city officials chose to uncork when they installed their appointed principal, Marissa Velasquez, on August 6.
Students quickly took action. On August 15, nearly the entire school boycotted the new principal and her choice to replace Advanced Placement classes with remedial courses taught by first-year, substitute teachers, by sitting down in front of their lockers for five class periods. Meanwhile, parents—disenfranchised from determining policy at their own school by the Appointed Local School Council, which dictates hiring and firing choices, demanded a meeting with the West Side High School Network.
That August 23 meeting (at which the community was initially prohibited from attending) began with a PowerPoint presentation misrepresenting SoJo’s test scores and ended with the installed principal scurrying away, after she tried to justify her censorship of a student leader at the school’s traditionally participatory Town Hall assemblies. Velasquez explained that she didn’t want SoJo senior Rocio Meza to read “The Voice,” a poem by (CPS alumnus) Shel Silverstein1, because Meza “wanted to use it as a political platform.” The crowd promptly excused Velasquez from her own “platform” that night with chants of “Where’s the justice in Social Justice?” and “We were born out of struggle—the struggle continues!”
The next day, Hogan and Sangha (with one teacher on maternity leave, the school’s only active English instructors, as well as being among the founders of the school) were escorted by security to the new principal’s office, where they were laid off—supposedly for “economic reasons.” Suspecting this was actually retaliation for the pair’s union activity, CTU challenged the dismissals with multiple grievances and an unfair labor practices charge; the principal was forced to reverse the firings a week later. Both teachers are now back in the classroom at SoJo, but the previous changes to the school remain.
Students met this partial victory in stride, announcing a second major action for Friday, August 31: a bilingual rally and march through the neighborhood, followed by a press conference where they announced their five demands:
- “Rewind to August 6” with all original teachers, classes, and principal
- Replace the Appointed Local School Council to an Elected Local School Council; community decision over the school principal
- Contracts for all teachers and principals at all four schools on the Little Village/Lawndale Campus (along with SoJo, the school contains World Language High School; Infinity Math, Science and Technology High School; and Multicultural Academy of Scholarship or MAS)
- No retaliation for student action
- Apology from the CPS Network
The march encompassed nearly the entire student body of SoJo, as well as parents, students from World Language High School, and even SoJo alumni who wore their graduating class t-shirts. Carolina Gaete, one of the hunger strikers who fought for the school, addressed the crowd:
“Sometimes, you need to be a little crazy. And sometimes you need to say, ‘change only happens when we make it happen.’ So I’m here to say, as one of the people here who went on hunger strike: we are so, so, so very proud of you. You are that seed that was planted which has flourished into beautiful, beautiful flowers. And, that is now willing to stand up and fight for your rights to quality education.
“I want to say from the bottom of my heart that you have given us a lesson in courage. When some people are scared to stand up, you have stood up. Know that we are here, we’ve got your back, anything you need we are here for you. We stand in solidarity with you. We know that this struggle may not be won in one day or two days. But know that your voice will be heard, and it’s already being heard. I thank you for that, and I thank you for standing up for the children that are coming behind you.
“We were born out of the struggle, the struggle continues! I love each and every one of you!”
SoJo senior Ebone Jones illustrated the demands of the march and the students’ struggle:
“We want to turn back time.
“In particular, to 25 days ago, on August 6: before the lies, the humiliation, and the stress that they have put us through. We the students, we have been stressed, no doubt about it.
“We lost our principal, our teachers, our classes: our school, our family. We are here to restore the peace and prosperity to our community and our school! The Social Justice mission statement clearly states our belief in self-determination inspires our community to act on its convictions, to confirm its right to a quality education.
“We are here to ask: where is this quality education? Where are the rigorous courses to prepare us for college? Where are our teachers who go over and beyond the call of duty? Where is the support system of guidance and accountability the students need? And, most importantly: where is the CPS board and administration to answer these questions? Enough is enough! Where are the answers?
“We are the school of Social Justice; we do not give up easily! We are the school of the phoenix; we may fall but we will rise through the ashes!”
Finally, Rocio Meza spoke, loudly but with a little difficulty—not, this time, because of any administrator’s censorship, but due to the tiring of her own voice from leading the students’ chants:
“Students, parents and community leaders, do you remember when this school was built? Do you remember why this school was built? It started with people like you and me. This school was built so that our children and ourselves wouldn’t have to go to any more overcrowded, dangerous schools in this community. It was built because people like you were willing to step up and voice their opinions, loud and proud.
“Let’s be honest, this shit wouldn’t happen if we lived in a white suburban neighborhood. They would be too scared of the angry parents and students knocking on their door with all their lawyers. Don’t let your first language or your race define how others see you, in a negative way. A lot of students don’t have good communication with their parents and can’t speak freely to their parents about their problems. And the CPS network is taking advantage of that! Look at the most recent newsletter to the parents that Social Justice High School has handed out. Can someone read to me the Spanish side on that newsletter? I didn’t think so.
“All through history a small group of elite people have tried to destroy our culture, take away our land, and take away our language. They have tried to hurt future generations by taking away their quality education. Do you guys see the bigger picture? Do you guys see the bigger misters? CPS has implemented their own dictator in our school…”
In fighting this dictator, the students of Social Justice High School have provided an example to other CPS students and a powerful show of solidarity with the teachers and their union as it approaches its September 10 strike date.
Isaac, a member of the Chicago branch of Solidarity, has recently been active with the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign.
—Solidarity, September 1, 2012
1 “The Voice,” by Shel Silverstein Pg. 38
There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel that this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What’s right for you—just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.
See also: Labor Beat: SOJO - The Fight for Social Justice High School
[“This is not an education plan, it’s a business plan.” quote from the video...bw]
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