As the image of Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleading guilty and apologizing to the surrounding cameras is broadcast across our city, the realities of our Chicago schools flash through my mind.
I see classrooms packed to the brim, wall to wall, 40-50 kids in a classroom with the fire code waived, since these classes far exceed state law.
I see roaches jumping out of school breakfast bags, while rats play in the corner of the room because our cleaning services were privatized and slashed.
I see a child’s face turn to disgust, as the light brown and yellow water dribbles from the fountain.
I see the special education budget demolished, students coming up to me in the halls, with those wide brown eyes, looking up at me saying, “Teacher, when can I see you? I need help. I don’t understand,” because there are not enough special education teachers to service all our most vulnerable students.
I see schools losing 23 dedicated special educators assistants, students with significant disabilities not having their diaper changed, not being able to eat for hours because there aren’t enough special education assistants to support them. And I know CPS chose to cut their lifelines, while Barbara Byrd-Bennett gambled the same money away in casinos.
I see teachers, dark bags under their eyes, coming in early, leaving late, working their lunches with intervention clubs, reading to kids one-on-one to push their education to the next level, to see that smile when they finish a book and say, “I read the whole thing! I get it now!” And I know how much harder it is to capture that moment in a school whose librarian has been cut.
I see kids at their desk, teeth chattering, wearing thrift store coats and hats in the winter, looking at the heating vents, hoping for that puff of heat to flow out, while across town a CPS bureaucrat is sitting in his warm office figuring out how to divert our facilities budget to a charter school operator with more clout.
I see 60 kids last June, holding their heads, sweat beads trickling down their foreheads, plastic cold packs held tightly to their cheeks, dialing their parents, one after another, falling ill from heat exhaustion in AC-less classrooms.
I see months of school closure hearings, with parents, students and teachers pouring their hearts out to save their schools, no words such as “close my school” were uttered in those rooms, while the mayor’s friends have already signed the crony contracts to fragment the lives of those parents, students and teachers into their own pockets.
I see a 6 year-old with tears streaming down his face, rubbing his eyes with his sweater, begging cold stone-faced CPS staffers, “please save my school, please!” The staffers check their phones and think about their weekend.
I see a 70 year-old black woman, with a cane, hobble up to the microphone and cry out “I went to this school, my kids went to this school and now my grandkids go to this school. There are no libraries in my neighborhood anymore, no health clinics, parks are gang-ridden, everything has been privatized and destroyed, but the last places standing in this community are the churches and this school and you are tearing that away from our hands to save a penny!” And the CPS bureaucrats think, “A penny saved is a million in our pockets and a vote in the mayor’s ledger.”
At the school closure hearings, I don’t see the mayor, who appointed this school board, “listening” to the community on whether to close these schools,
I watch business people sitting on the unelected school board with their black and gray suits and ties, chilled on the outside from the cool AC-ed breeze blowing through the vents, and chilled on the inside from the vote they take to close 50 schools without blinking an eye,
“Yes, close them”
While at the same time voting “Yes” to a $23 million no-bid SUPES contract.
I see Barbara Byrd-Bennett perform her apology for the cameras, while at the same time Rahm Emanuel performs his denials and blatantly ignores FOIA requests for email communication on SUPES, “I didn’t know Solomon at all, well maybe he did advise my key appointments; Mayoral control means the accountability stops with one person, well, maybe not me…”
I see all this and my heart is crushed for my students and all the students of Chicago, and my hands curl into fists for these men and women who see our students as crisp green dollar bills and our schools and everything in them as models for the privatization of education in America.
You can apologize to the cameras, but who has to apologize to the kids of Chicago? Teachers across this city apologize every day to their students.
Today, I told my wide-eyed student with a disability, “I’m sorry I can’t see you today, hopefully tomorrow CPS will give us another special education teacher. ” But I think, “Hopefully tomorrow the people who run our city will choose your life and your future over their own selfish pursuits because they sure didn’t today.”
The only apology to the children of Chicago will be an elected representative school board where corruption and private interests will NOT be tolerated. A school district that is led from our communities by our parents, students and teachers rather than Rahm Emanuel’s corporate buddies who give their own children the best and leave nothing but crumbs for the rest of ours.
I am ready to fight to make an elected representative school board a reality. I am not sorry.
Sarah Chambers is a Special Education teacher at Saucedo Academy and a member of the Executive Board of the Chicago Teachers Union.