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Hundreds of Chicago Students Boycott School Over Funding Disparities
Protesters board buses to enroll at 2 North Shore schools
Hundreds of Chicago Public Schools students skipped the first day of classes Tuesday and instead boarded buses to two North Shore schools to protest the financial divide in Illinois public education.
As of about 10:20 a.m., 21 buses and dozens of students had gathered at the House of Hope church, 752 E. 114th St., one of the eight city churches where students, their parents and volunteers were to be picked up for the bus trip to the north suburbs.
As many as 2,000 city students were expected to attempt to enroll in New Trier Township High School and Sunset Ridge School, both distinguished by their affluence and academics. State law, though, requires residency to register in a public school. Suburban school officials have said this will be no exception.
The architect of the controversial boycott, state Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago), who is also the pastor of Salem Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side, stood in the church's parking lot surrounded by more than 100 children, parents, pastors and volunteers, and said:
"We do not believe a child's education should be based on where they live. . . . Three decades of underfunded schools have led to the social ills we face today."
Yolanda DeNeal was at the House of Hope with her three children, two of whom attend Curtis Elementary School in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood.
"We are being forced to get an inadequate education and that's not fair. We ain't missing nothing by one day," DeNeal said. "We need to say something and they need to hear us and we're making noise today."
Robin Williams and her daughter Kara, 11, of the Pullman neighborhood, were one of the first sets of parents and children to arrive at the House of Hope.
Kara, who is going into the 5th grade at Schmid Elementary School, said she chose to sit out Tuesday because little work gets done the first day of the school year, anyway.
Her mother, meanwhile, said she believed the boycott was necessary to stand up for equal funding.
"If you don't take a stand, let everything go by," then your children get an inadequate education, Robin Williams said.
Administrators at both school districts plan to jointly open one campus to visiting students. Anyone wishing to enroll at New Trier High School's main Winnetka campus will be directed to the 9th-grade campus in Northfield, as will elementary students who report to Sunset Ridge School in Northfield.
Rev. Albert Tyson of St. Stephen AME church, who is part of the boycott, said students will receive four hours of Montessori-based education both on the buses and when they reach their destination. He said they want children to know what a well-funded school system looks like.
"We want our students to see what it's like, and see what they are missing," Tyson said. More than 100 school administrators and local village officials will supervise the registration process and steer high school students toward the gym and younger children into the auditorium. Registration will close at 2 p.m., and visiting students will be at Northfield only "for a short time," New Trier officials said in a news release.
"The first step in the student registration process is to provide proof of residency," the statement read.
Meeks has sought to highlight inequities in Illinois' education funding, an issue that has long stymied state lawmakers.
Meekswill host a Tuesday afternoon rally at the Harms Woods Forest Preserve near Skokie to spotlight the issue before students and families return home.
Meeks is pushing for a three-year, $120 million program that he believes would prove that more resources, money and accountability would improve the academic standing of low-scoring schools. Last week, he pledged to avert the boycott if the state's top lawmakers-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Senate President Emil Jones and House Speaker Michael Madigan-publicly committed to funding the reform plan. They didn't, so Meeks moved ahead with plans to transport as many as 125 busloads of students and parents north.
Chicago Public Schools officials such as Board of Education President Rufus Williams lambasted the boycott and urged students to "boycott the boycott."
Organizers of the annual Million Father March also have urged parents to accompany their children to their first day of school and questioned the logic of Meeks' boycott. They said the first day sets the tone for the year and could adversely affect the Chicago district's financial support from the state. Average daily attendance helps determine each school district's funding.
For their part, New Trier Township administrators, police and residents have tried to plan for what could be an unprecedented influx of Chicago students to their campuses.
They have said they recognize the financial imbalance between schools in a funding system shouldered by local property taxes. New Trier teachers received a back-to-school briefing on the issue in anticipation of students' questions, and information also was sent home to parents. The day's events may be discussed in relevant classes.
New Trier Supt. Linda Yonke has said she sees the protest "as an educational opportunity."
Several New Trier students and residents are expected to join the Chicago group in a show of support. Nearly two dozen parents, clergy and residents launched an initiative called United We Learn to welcome the visiting students and build support to change the way Illinois funds public education.