Students and Sit-ins at Whittier Elementary School

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #13 in April 2013]

Students and Sit-ins at Whittier Elementary School. Housing gentrification, school enrollments, and a grassroots battleground

The impact of housing gentrification on school enrollments is rarely studied in a systematic manner. There is evidence that the demographic shifts accompanying gentrification lead to a reduction in the number of school-aged children in a neighborhood and, as a 2006 Loyola University  report indicated, gentrification processes in Chicago are lowering population densities as single family homes and apartment buildings that often housed extended families are replaced by condominium units occupied by one or two people.1  These changes are especially concerning in the context of Renaissance 2010’s school reform , which identifies schools that have declining enrollments or are below maximum enrollment as possible targets for closure or reassignment, decisions that disproportionately impact low income, Latino and African American neighborhoods. The Loyola report quotes residents who feared their local schools would face closure while, simultaneously, public schools in wealthier parts of the city were receiving additional financial support.

In Pilsen, where DePaul University’s Department of Geography  has partnered with the Pilsen Alliance  to examine urban development and housing trends for almost a decade as part of our “Contested Chicago: Pilsen and Gentrification” project,2  our work focused on John Greenleaf Whittier Elementary (1900 W. 23rd St.) . Named after a 19th-century poet and abolitionist, Whittier Elementary saw its student numbers fall during the 2000s, as housing pressures increased in Pilsen. To make sense of this, the school kept a log of departures, noting the new schools to which a student moved. The Pilsen Alliance, a Community Partner of Whittier Elementary, asked us to examine these data on children who left Whittier between June 2006 and June 2010. DePaul undergraduate student Diana Maties  quantified, digitized, and mapped the destination locations of 357 departed Whittier students. Not every departing student listed a new school; others simply listed Mexico, Texas or suburban Chicagoland locations like Hoffman Estates . Yet overall the results demonstrate that of these children and, presumably, their families, all but fifty moved away from the Pilsen neighborhood. Those that stayed in Pilsen transferred to nearby schools like the United Neighborhood Organization’s (UNO) Bartolome De Las Casas Charter School  and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Orozco Fine Arts & Sciences Elementary School . There was also significant movement southwest of Pilsen to Brighton Park , Little Village/South Lawndale  and Gage Park.

It was within this context of declining enrollments and student transfers that Whittier became a flashpoint for struggles over the allocation of CPS resources. A sit-in by parents and community activists began on 15th September 2010 and would eventually last 43 days. These protests echoed a 2001 hunger strike by mothers in Little Village, another low-income, largely Hispanic neighborhood in the city, where demand for better school facilities spurred parents into action.3  At the center of 2010’s Whittier dispute were plans to raze a 1920s fieldhouse that city officials stated was structurally unsound and a fire hazard. Replacing the building was to be a new soccer field that would be used by a nearby private school, Christo Rey .4  Protestors bristled at the use of CPS property for a private school’s benefit and demanded that the money allocated for demolition instead be used to convert the building for use as a library. During the dispute, around 30 parents occupied the building in shifts and CPS officials turned off the gas supply, cutting off the heat and hot water, supposedly to ready the structure for the wrecking ball. When police seemed prepared to make arrests, the occupiers were joined by dozens of other protesters, preventing any action. For long stretches of the dispute CPS officials did not contact the protesters, and when they did, negotiations began about locating a library within Whittier’s main school building. The protesters pointed out that over 160 of Chicago’s public schools lack on-site libraries and others make do with book collections paid for by parents or with money taken from discretionary funds. The occupation ended on 27 October 2010 when the City agreed to a proposal by Alderman Daniel Solis (25th Ward)  to renovate the building (renamed “La Casita” by protestors) using Tax Increment Financing (TIF)  funds. Solis is a former teacher, schools activist, and onetime leader of UNO, today a major provider of charter schools in Chicago.

As a CPS Community School, Whittier aims to offer both academic and non-academic services to students and their families. As such, La Casita was used as the primary space in which to offer such programs as English as a Second Language, sewing, citizenship classes, etc. The agreement made at the end of the sit in was that the field house La Casita building would be leased to a new non-profit Whittier Parents Committee  for a nominal $1 per year for these community uses.5  As the map shows, the Whittier property sits within the 907-acre Pilsen TIF on a sliver of land just beyond the main area of the TIF district. This makes it eligible to receive TIF dollars, despite the TIF’s stated purpose upon designation in 1998 of maintaining industrial, wholesale retail and manufacturing jobs in the area for the next 23 years.6  Indeed, it was TIF dollars that started the Whittier dispute. In 2009, when Ald. Solis allocated around $1.7m from the TIF to renovate lab space and Whittier’s cafeteria, the itemized budget stated these funds were also to raze the disputed field house, alerting local parents to the original deal with Christo Rey High.7  By June 2011, the TIF money promised in October 2010 had not appeared and CPS officials forwarded revised plans to build a library within the main Whittier School building. One reason given by the interim CPS leader, Terry Mazany , for finding the space for a library was that Whittier’s lower enrollments meant less classroom space was needed.8  This led to new protests and a second 25-day occupation of “La Casita” in summer 2011 during which parents blocked access to Whittier by construction crews because, they argued, CPS had reneged on their original deal to renovate “La Casita” for the library. They further claimed, despite CPS denials, that the library would occupy lab space and would disrupt special education provision. The library project was put on hold as talks resumed between parents’ groups and CPS officials.

In late-2012, the CPS School Progress report ranked Whittier at “Level 3,” putting it on probation for a second year. Whittier’s students were identified as “below average” performers and, despite the intense community activity during the La Casita controversy, CPS deemed there to be “not enough data” to assess if the school has “involved families.”9  Added to this, CPS understands the “ideal enrollment” at Whittier to be 420 students.10  In the 2011-12 school year, 387 students were enrolled: 95.2% were low-income; 98.1% were Hispanic and 69.8% were English language learners.11  Such assessments result in a vicious circle: a school is put on probation, students depart (often those with the means and opportunities to do so), numbers fall below the CPS “enrollment efficiency range,” and worries about closure increase.

The struggle over public schooling in Chicago is arguably as much about responding to the rapidly changing real estate market and gentrification processes as it is about children’s education. Schools are faced with multiple pressures—changing enrollments due to shifting neighborhood demographics, integrating new immigrants who are learning English as a second language, and old, often poorly maintained, buildings. Protests like that at Whittier, although ostensibly about the provision of a library, are also about the centrality of schools to neighborhood identities and, by extension, the degree of respect given to those who live there by City officials, the priorities of CPS spending acting as a proxy for these sentiments. One sure way to change a neighborhood is to close its school. ◊



1. Philip Nyden, Emily Edlynn and Julie Davis,

The Differential Impact of Gentrification on

Communities in Chicago, Center for Urban Research

and Learning, Loyola University, 2006.

2. Paul Lloyd Sargent, “Contested Chicago: Pilsen

and Gentrification” AREA Chicago, 3, 2006.



3. Joanie Friedman, “Contested Space,” AREA Chicago 5, 2007. Available: contested-space

4. Ben Joravsky, “Whittier: What fanned the flames,” Chicago Reader, 10 November 2010.

5. Noreen Ahmed-Ullah, “Battle of mothers nears end at field house: CPS chief gives in to demands of Whittier parents,” Chicago Tribune, 21 October 2010.

6. Euan Hague, “Tax Increment Financing – an ongoing contest over urban land use in Pilsen, Chicago” Association of American Geographers Urban Geography Specialty Group Newsletter, vol. 26.3 (2005) 7-9. Available: http://depts.washington. edu/ugsg/ugsg/december05.pdf

7. Micah Uetricht “A Sit-in Success Story,” Yes!, 18 November 2010. Available: http://www.yesmagazine. org/people-power/a-sit-in-successstory; Noreen Ahmed-Ullah “Group halts its own pet project: school activists delay library,” Chicago Tribune, 24 June 2011.

8. “Other Developments: Whittier Dispute Flares,” Chicago Tribune, 24 March 2011.

9. CPS, “2012 School Progress Report: John Greenleaf Whittier Elementary School.” Available: SchoolProgressReport_Eng_2012/610228_39_ WHITTIER_ENGLISH_610228_Standard.pdf

10. CPS, “SY 2011 School Space Utilization Report: Whittier.” Available: SchoolSpaceUtilizationReport/610228_Whittier.pdf

11. “CPS Schools At A Glance: Whittier,” Available:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s