NORTH LAWNDALE — Dozens of protesters came out Saturday on the 60th anniversary of the famed Brown v. Board of Education ruling, charging that Chicago Public Schools are "still separate, still unequal."
In front of shuttered Pope Elementary School, one of about 50 schools the district board voted to close in May of 2013, members of the Chicago Teachers Union and community groups representing the South and West Sides came out spoke against handing over public school buildings to private operators, and school closings in general.
The Brown ruling originated in Topeka, Kansas, with the court ultimately deciding that creating "separate but equal" schools for whites and blacks was unconstitutional.
Those at Saturday's event at Pope, which attracted about 100 people, said that decades after the landmark court ruling, not much has changed in Chicago's school system.
"We're here to communicate that 60 years after Brown v. Board we're still separate, still unequal," said Adorphus McDowell, of the South Side's Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.
A theme among the speakers and those attending the event was that elected officials at all levels of government — federal and municipal alike — were ignoring the voice and interests of neighborhoods where constituents are poor and minority.
"Not one more school should be touched by Chicago Public Schools," said Jitu Brown, also of KOCO.
"It is shameful that parents have to do a sit-in at a public school," he added, referring to events on Friday in which parents in protest of CPS board actions refused to leave Gresham Elementary School.
At its April 23 meeting, the CPS board voted to designate the academically underperforming Gresham, 8524 S. Green St., a "turnaround" school. When a turnaround occurs, the nonprofit Academy of Urban School Leadership assumes management of the school, and the entire staff, including the principal, must re-apply for their jobs.
The parents left Gresham at about 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning.
Speakers at the Saturday event at Pope, 1852 S. Albany Ave. — sponsored by a group called Grassroots Education Movement, a collection of various community organizations around Chicago — outlined goals they said are aimed at improving schools in disadvantaged communities.
Among them are calling for a nationwide moratorium on the creation of new charter schools, which are run by private companies with tax dollars, and halting the closings of any more public schools. The goals also include holding existing charter schools to higher standards, said McDowell.
A CPS employee of 13 years, Kelvyn Park High School history teacher Eric Wagner said at the event that "the trend in the Chicago Public Schools of school closures and privatization is disturbing."
"We try to educate every kid," Wagner said of teaching at neighborhood schools, adding that charter schools have the ability to "discriminate."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board have said the schools were closed because of falling enrollment and because operating underused schools is a waste of money, cash that would be better put use supporting surviving schools. Emanuel has said he supports charter schools as a way to give parents more choices.
Emanuel has denied racism is part of his decision to close the schools, telling reporters that 56 percent of black male students drop out before graduating so "the status quo is unacceptable."
Last year at a board hearing, schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, an African-American, said, "To refuse challenging the status quo that is failing thousands of African American students year after year, consigning them to a future with less opportunities than others than others, that's what I call racist."
Neighbors of Hope are concerned that the old school building has been eyed by charter operators looking to open schools.
"I was here when they closed those doors and I cried," Suzette Lyons, who attended Pope decades ago, told the crowd. "I cried because so many children in my community will be missing something."
After her speech, Lyons connected the closing of Pope and dozens of others, which affected primarily black students, with the civil rights movement.
"They were fighting for something different than for the right to open school doors. It was all about racism," Lyons said. "But if you look at the schools that were closed, it affected a certain type of community. It's another kind of racism."