HUMBOLDT PARK — As 50 schools prepare to close around Chicago in a historic and controversial shuttering of institutions, one family took drastic action Wednesday, shutting themselves in a classroom at a shuttering school and refused to come out.
After the last day of classes ever at Lafayette Elementary at 2714 W. Augusta Blvd. in Humboldt Park, parents and students took over a second-floor classroom in protest of its closure.
The sit-in lasted for more than three hours, and by 6:30 p.m., all of the members were out of the building.
"We have a right to protest and demand what our schools need without being arrested," said Rousemary Vega, 32, who is a graduate of the school. "Our hope is for [CPS CEO] Barbara Byrd-Bennett to get the point that she is hurting families. We're desperate enough to do what's needed. ... This is a nationwide problem."
The demonstration started about 2:45 p.m., when the final bell rang, according to demonstrators. By 3:30 p.m., 50 to 60 people outside blocked various entrances of the school and police arrived on scene.
"We're in here to keep our school open," Vega's daughter Nidalis Burgos, 15, a Lincoln Park High School student and Lafayette graduate said in a phone interview from the room during their sit-in.
The group was prepared to stay in there "however long it takes to prove our point," Burgos said.
Those surrounding the school also aimed to block Chicago Public Schools employees from taking out supplies from the school, demonstrators said.
"I'm here because I want to make sure the school stays open," said Raquel Torres, 40, a former student of the school who lives nearby and was outside protesting. "The community will be very severely impacted if it closes."
As many as nine people were inside initially, but as of 4:20 p.m, there were six people in the classroom, said Angel Rivera, a parent who was in the school for the protest but came outside.
Protestors said the remaining people included Burgos; her mother; Vega's husband; and Vega's three other children ages 2, 7 and 11. Two police officers could also be seen in the classroom in photos that Burgos sent via Twitter.
"Police officers trying to get us to leave, but we are not leaving!!!!" Burgos tweeted early in the protest. Later she tweeted, "We are finally coming to a conclusion."
Earlier Wednesday, tears streamed down Vega's face as she came to the school with her children for the last day of classes.
“It almost feels like quitting, like giving up every little bit of hope that I had for this school,” said Vega.
She grew emotional as she carried her fifth-grade daughter’s cello into the building.
“As a parent, I can’t afford to provide her with the music program she wants to do,” Vega said. “To have to come in today and have her turn in her instrument after having it for three years — it’s very hurtful.”
Vega said she won’t know whether her daughter can continue cello lessons at Chopin, where students will attend next year, until a week before classes start.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Sara Karlin, 56, who has taught in Lafayette’s autism program for five years.
“We argued for months,” Karlin said. “We gave all the very valid reasons why this shouldn’t happen, and they’re doing it anyway. There’s nothing left to do but pack up and go.”
Like several other teachers interviewed Wednesday morning, Karlin said it was “very scary” that she doesn't know whether she’d have a job next year.
“This is my livelihood,” she said, fighting tears.
“Hopefully I’ll continue to teach,” said Lourdes Castro, a third-grade teacher who has been at Lafayette for 22 years. Right now, she doesn’t have any offers.
Thalia Castanon, a 30-year-old bus attendant who helps special needs children, said staffers' futures are equally ambiguous.
“We were given our pink slips Friday,” she said. “The kids came in today asking me a zillion questions … if I’m going to the same school they’re going to.”
Castanon said she’s worried about how special needs children, who make up a third of Lafayette’s student body, will handle the transition. When the kids recently went on a field trip to Chopin, some cried and needed to leave.
Castanon’s own brother, a Lafayette seventh-grader who has autism, recently punched someone — something he hasn’t done since he was a small child.
“Kids with autism don’t know how to express emotion well,” Castanon said. “They’re scared.”
“We really don’t know” how they’re going to react, said Dora Villagomez, a 50-year-old bus attendant. “I hope the mayor realizes what he’s doing — with this school especially.”
Mayte Martinez, 40, said her daughter, who just completed fifth grade, was “very nervous” about how kids and teachers at Chopin will react to the incoming students. It’s tough for her to leave the school she’s attended since kindergarten, Martinez said.
“If they’re going to close 50 schools, they should give us a choice” of where to go next, Martinez said. “They didn’t give us a chance.”
CPS officials said they realized the closure was hard on all involved.
"We know this is a difficult time for some parents and students," Byrd-Bennett said in a statement responding to the demonstration. "As we end this school year, it is time for us as a city to begin the work of creating a deep and lasting change in our schools to ensure our children are on a path to a bright future."