Kenwood Oakland Community Organization

Dee Patterson, Contributing Writer


image courtesy of Google Images

The legacy of Civil Rights in the United States is best represented by the sit-in movement and the battle to desegregate public schools. It is this legacy that the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, KOCO, draws from in its fight against the closure and consolidation of south Chicago neighborhood schools with a prolonged sit-in at City Hall, just outside the office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

I was late for the sit-in by three days.

Like many, I had only a vague idea of the politics of school closings. On the face of it, the argument is simple: if a school isn’t doing well, why shouldn’t it close? It’s a seductive argument, one that speaks to American values like hard work and merit.

Still, when I learned of KOCO’s protest the day before, I decided I had to hear for myself what would make these folks so outraged over the closing of failing schools. And sitting with members of KOCO, listening to their story, I began to see the bigger picture.

KOCO charges that the main thrust of school closings and consolidations have been happening in the black and brown neighborhoods of Chicago’s south side. The pattern has been to close schools that are on academic probation and fold them into schools that aren’t. Again, on the face of it, a clear solution to a clear problem.

Where the problem lies is that, with no additional resources to keep abreast of new students, these schools, some of which had no prior academic issues, fall into level 3 probation. What replaces them? In many cases, schools that take public money but are not subject to things like Teacher’s Unions. These charter schools often take enrollment by lottery or selective testing, ensuring that many neighborhood kids will have to walk passed close-by schools on their way to take mass transit elsewhere. As KOCO sees it, the CPS’s plans are leaving families with three choices for their children: schools outside of their neighborhoods, lotteries or selective enrollment.

According to the Chicago Reader, the majority of city jobs, Chicago’s third largest employer, are being cut from the same neighborhoods whose schools are closing, the same whose physical and mental health clinics are being shuttered. Is it any wonder that these neighbor- hoods feel under attack?

KOCO hopes to present its own, community-based alternative to closings and charter schools. As of this writing, they’re still waiting for a face-to-face with the Mayor.

The Mayor’s office didn’t want to make the sit-in too easy on KOCO. I spoke with Shannon Bennett, one of the lead organizers for the protest, who told me that they were allowed chairs on the first day of the protest. By the second, a security officer had asked them to sit on the marble floor. That is where I found Mr. Bennett, a tall man in an immaculate suit: sitting on the

floor. That is where I saw several white haired women who should have been perched on supportive chairs, not suffering on the hard ground with stone at their back. After an hour on that cold floor, I was squirming uncomfortably. I can’t imagine what it must have been like sitting for hours over the several days of the sit-in.

By the end of the sit-in, one unfortunate protester had slipped trying to get to her feet. As the others surrounded her, there lying prone, with the security officer looking on, worriedly asking if he should call the hospital, I wondered if this is what the Mayor’s office had wanted. Discomfort? Humiliation?

KOCO may be standing against the powers-that-be but they didn’t stand alone. Members of the Chicago Teacher’s Union were present, though few in numbers since the semester was back in session; there were also members of the Occupy Movement present, some from the south side while others came down from Rogers Park.

When the press conferences were over and the journalists and cameras were gone, it was these people who sat down with one of the KOCO organizers and spokespeople, Jitsu Brown, and listened on as he described the troubles of his home and community; it was these people who listened, when the Mayor had yet to.