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Roosevelt High School Students Stage Walkout to Protest Budget Cuts

By Patty Wetli | October 5, 2015 12:16pm | Updated on October 5, 2015 3:07pm
 Students from Roosevelt High School, 3436 W. Wilson Ave., walked out of school Monday to protest cuts.
Students from Roosevelt High School, 3436 W. Wilson Ave., walked out of school Monday to protest cuts.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

ALBANY PARK — Hundreds of students walked out of Roosevelt High School Monday to protest district budget and staff cuts.

Chanting "save our teachers" and "cut it with the budget cuts," students were reacting to news that, in the wake of lower than projected enrollment, more than $650,000 had been slashed from Roosevelt's budget, resulting in the anticipated loss of 10 teachers.

"These are teachers we've grown up with and love," said senior Kimoni Gaston, among those taking part in the walkout.

The school has taken a number of financial hits in recent years, which left Gaston "afraid they're going to shut down Roosevelt."

Students said they began organizing the walkout via text and social media after Roosevelt Principal Pilar Vazquez-Vialva shared news of the staff cuts at an assembly last week. Teachers were reportedly learning Monday whether or not they were being pink-slipped.

"I want our voices to be heard," said senior Talia Cinteron, one of the walkout's leaders. "This is for our teachers to keep their jobs."

Vazquez-Vialva did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Patty Wetli says the students seemed genuinely concerned:

The mostly orderly and spirited protest began at 10 a.m. Several Chicago Police officers were on hand to keep an eye on the proceedings but had little interaction with the students other than to prevent them from spilling into traffic on Kimball and Wilson avenues.

Roosevelt, 3436 W. Wilson Ave., is a neighborhood school that enrolls approximately 1,200 students, according to the Chicago Public Schools website.

Tenth-day enrollment figures released by CPS showed Roosevelt's head count was 100 fewer students than projected for the 2015-16 school year. Under CPS' per-pupil budget formula, a loss of students translates directly to a loss of funds.

The new cuts came on top of $872,000 slashed from the school's budget in July.

Some 96 percent of Roosevelt's student body is classified as low income. Approximately 75 percent of students are Hispanic, according to CPS.

Though Roosevelt had been on probation for several years, students said the school was on an upswing.

"Everything is improving," said junior Gabriel Virella. "It's worth fighting for."

Senior Katya Borja, who participated in the walkout, said she and her classmates collectively achieved the highest ACT score Roosevelt had received in six years.

"We're showing support for our teachers," said Borja. "They don't deserve this."

The students also had another audience in mind when they staged their walkout: the mayor.

"This is more for Rahm [Emanuel] to see what he's doing to the schools," said student protester Erik Hernandez.

Senior Norma Rodriguez said officials from CPS arrived at the school early Monday morning to meet with administrators and students in the hopes of staving off the walkout. The officials said nothing could be done about the budget cuts, according to Rodriguez.

"They were telling us b.s. It was useless," she said. "What we need is our education."

Student Aaron McCarthy said, "The city can finance stuff like new Ferris wheels and tourist sites. What about the schools? Aren't schools important?" (The new $26.5 million Ferris wheel at Navy Pier will not be covered by public funds, pier officials have said.)

An emergency Local School Council meeting had been scheduled for last Friday in order to hold a public discussion about the cuts. The meeting was canceled but approximately 30 Roosevelt teachers and staff members, along with a handful of LSC members, still gathered to prepare for Monday.

Civics teacher Tim Meegan, who recently ran for 33rd Ward alderman and nearly forced Deb Mell into a run-off, led the conversation.

Roosevelt had already lost 16 teaching positions in August, he noted. With 10 more, "class size will balloon and our electives will be reduced," he said.

"I see Roosevelt caught in this vicious vice grip. They're slashing all of the things that make our school great," Meegan said. "We can't compete [for students] when they cut, but if we don't get more students, they'll cut more."

Joining the protest line Monday, Meegan expressed pride and admiration in his students.

"Teens have real civic values. They're willing to fight to save their school," he said. "This is what we're supposed to teach in the public schools. This is real democracy. All the learning is taking place out here."

The question left hanging in the air both at the conclusion of Friday's staff conclave and on Monday as the protest gradually dissipated: What happens Tuesday?

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