DOWNTOWN — Hundreds of protesters marched from Chicago Public Schools headquarters to City Hall Wednesday to demand an elected school board.
"Today we light the match for an elected, representative school board in the city of Chicago," said Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel came in for heavy criticism for the Board of Education he appointed.
"Rahm and CPS are giving us the runaround on education," said Jamie Adams, a 15-year-old sophomore at Roosevelt High School and a member of Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools.
"If we the students don't stand up for our education and our beliefs, nobody else will. This is our education, and we need to fight for it," the teen said.
Police estimated the crowd at 400, but Brown said her group's count was more than 1,000. More than 100 CPS students also took part in the organized school boycott to join the march.
Some faced resistance from school administrators.
Diamond McCullough, a senior at Dyett High School, said about 20 students were prepared to board a bus for downtown when the principal informed them that parents would be notified and their names would be taken down for potential discipline.
McCullough led five students who continued to the march.
McCullough said the current Board of Education was "not accountable to the public" and was "setting my school up to fail" with budget cuts. She defended the student boycott to attend the march, deliberately set on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, saying, "This is like a history class for us."
Neighborhood groups like the Albany Park Neighborhood Council and the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council bused students downtown to the march.
"I came here to support the schools, support the teachers," said Alejandro Aldarel, a junior at Roosevelt High School who traveled downtown with the Albany Park group.
Others told tales of budget cuts and the fallout from school closings.
Asean Johnson, a 9-year-old fourth-grader credited with helping to save Garvey Elementary, said, "There are 39 kids in my classroom because of the budget cuts."
Precious Gentry, a student at Robeson High School, said they had no gym class and no art class.
"The rubber-stamp Board of Education has dramatically cut our budgets," Adams said. She attended the march with the Albany Park Neighborhood Council.
"Our classes are extremely overcrowded, with 40 to 50 students per class," she said, adding that some students were literally fighting over desks and others were forced to sit on the floor.
CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the student boycott was misguided, putting out a statement saying, "Adults need to set the example for our children and advocate that nothing matters more than their education."
"Removing children from the classroom for even one day is unacceptable. Our students belong in the classroom with their teachers getting the instruction they need to be on a path to a successful and bright future," Byrd-Bennett said.
The march started outside a Board of Education meeting, where members were scheduled to vote on steep budget cuts to the CPS system. Brown, however, said the marchers were deliberately ignoring the board. He called for "no more bogus school-closing hearings and talking to people who aren't listening to us."
Marchers paused outside City Hall, where Brown called on Emanuel to "come outside and talk to the people whose lives you turned upside down," referring to the 50 school closings imposed by the appointed Board of Education earlier this year.
"Mr. Mayor, where you at?" protesters chanted.
Marchers circled City Hall, but entrances were blocked by police. A smaller group was eventually allowed to deliver a statement to mayoral officials decrying the school closures and calling for an elected school board.
Protesters accused the mayor of "running away," referring to an incident earlier this week at Cather Elementary on the West Side. "He expects our children to have the courage to walk through gang lines, but he refuses to show a little courage to listen to the community's concerns," said Action Now President Michelle Young. "It's just one more example of the mayor ignoring us to push his own greedy agenda.
"You may shut us out, but you won't shut us up," Young added.
Although the mayor did not meet with protesters, Brown proclaimed the day "a tremendous victory." He said it was part of similar demonstrations in 25 cities nationwide to demand school reform.