‘Bad Ass Moms’ Defend Chicago Public Schools

Crystal Stella Becceril August 7, 2014

Members of BAM gather at the Neighborhood Schools Picnic in May 2014.

Last August, as the sum­mer break came to an end, Chica­go par­ent Rouse­mary Vega was dev­as­tat­ed. Three months pri­or, the city had vot­ed to close a record-high 50 pub­lic schools, includ­ing Lafayette Ele­men­tary in Hum­boldt Park, where her chil­dren had been stu­dents. Upon receiv­ing the let­ter from Chica­go Pub­lic Schools that their school would be shut­tered at the end of the 2012 – 2013 school year, the Vega fam­i­ly began orga­niz­ing to over­turn that deci­sion. How­ev­er, despite their efforts — includ­ing their occu­pa­tion of Lafayette on June 19, 2013 — and the community’s pleas, the Board moved for­ward with the clo­sure, dis­plac­ing 570 stu­dents in the process.

Vega says she’d nev­er before con­tem­plat­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty that her kids’ edu­ca­tion could be put on the line.

I was just a work­ing mom with four kids, not wor­ried about their school clos­ing,” she explains to In These Times as she wipes away tears. I just nev­er thought that could be pos­si­ble because I thought edu­ca­tion was sacred. … So for them to close schools, to close our doors — it was unbe­liev­able to me.”

Shocked as she was, Vega refused to be defeat­ed by Lafayette’s shut­ter­ing. At the start of the 2013 – 2014 school year, she began reach­ing out to oth­er moth­ers who were ready and will­ing to fight back against the Board of Education’s deci­sions. With­in a few months of Lafayet­te’s clo­sure, the advo­ca­cy group BAM — or Bad Ass Moms” was formed.

Though there are a num­ber of par­ent orga­ni­za­tions fight­ing for edu­ca­tion­al jus­tice in the city — includ­ing Par­ents 4 Teach­ers (P4T) and More Than a Score (MTS), whose mem­ber­ship over­laps with BAM’s — BAM con­cen­trates on a breadth of issues rather than advo­ca­cy around any one par­tic­u­lar top­ic, such as lay­offs (P4T) or over-test­ing (MTS).

Unit­ed behind the idea that all schools should be great schools, not just the ones their kids attend or the ones the Board of Edu­ca­tion deems wor­thy of sav­ing, BAM activists say they want to ampli­fy the voic­es of work­ing-class fam­i­lies whose schools are being defund­ed, over-test­ed and dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly closed by the city’s so-called edu­ca­tion reformers.

I would say … the school-clos­ing strug­gle was the spark that got us togeth­er,” says BAM mem­ber Julie Fain, man­ag­ing edi­tor at pro­gres­sive pub­lish­ing house Hay­mar­ket Books, whose chil­dren attend Pritzk­er Ele­men­tary in Wick­er Park. When CPS closed 50 schools, the unin­tend­ed con­se­quence was that they mobi­lized a lot of angry par­ents in the process. Many of us got to know each oth­er through that and agreed on a basic lev­el that we need­ed more justice.”

Though the schools tar­get­ed for clo­sure have tend­ed to be in poor­er neigh­bor­hoods, BAM lead­ers say their mem­ber­ship encom­pass­es fam­i­lies from across the city.

BAM is a group of moth­ers from across the city of Chica­go from dif­fer­ent races and dif­fer­ent eco­nom­ic back­grounds,” explains BAM mem­ber Sherise McDaniel. We’ve all come togeth­er to fight for the same cause: pub­lic education.”

McDaniel’s chil­dren attend George Manierre Ele­men­tary in Chicago’s Old Town neigh­bor­hood, a school which was also slat­ed for clo­sure in mid-2013. How­ev­er, strong parental and com­mu­ni­ty oppo­si­tion, which McDaniel helped to orga­nize, even­tu­al­ly forced CPS to back down: Manierre was tak­en off the list of schools to be shut­tered. Now McDaniel and BAM hope to use sim­i­lar direct-action tac­tics to defend oth­er schools that may be tar­get­ed for clo­sure or turn­arounds” — which refers to the prac­tice of restruc­tur­ing a school’s admin­is­tra­tion, often by fir­ing staff mem­bers and reopen­ing the school under new leadership.

Bad-Ass Moms has already begun employ­ing those same strate­gies to help inform local par­ents about the harm that edu­ca­tion pri­va­ti­za­tion does to stu­dents and com­mu­ni­ties. Last Novem­ber, the group orga­nized a Neigh­bor­hood Schools Fair at Rober­to Clemente High School in Hum­boldt Park. Accord­ing to BAM, the fair’s pur­pose was to show­case the pro­grams and peo­ple that make neigh­bor­hood pub­lic schools so tremen­dous­ly valu­able and worth invest­ing in. It also pro­vid­ed resources for fam­i­lies who want­ed to take a more active role in their schools and communities.

Many par­ents received train­ing for Local School Coun­cil mem­ber­ship on the spot,” says Vega.

Then, in Jan­u­ary of this year, the group braved the Polar Vor­tex’s icy weath­er to dis­trib­ute leaflets out­side of Sol­dier Field, where CPS was host­ing its annu­al New Schools Expo, which most fea­tured char­ter schools. BAM lead­ers say that the pro-char­ter pro­pa­gan­da put out by CPS and char­ter school net­works delib­er­ate­ly mis­in­forms par­ents about the options avail­able to them by offer­ing char­ter schools as the only alter­na­tive to under­fund­ed neigh­bor­hood schools.

I would say par­ents are mis­in­formed about char­ter schools,” explains Fain. Often they don’t know about harsh dis­ci­pline poli­cies or high sus­pen­sion rates, or how lim­it­ed the aca­d­e­m­ic offer­ings can be … Char­ters use glossy mar­ket­ing mate­ri­als to make them look new and attrac­tive, but real­ly they don’t do any bet­ter on CPS’s own mea­sures of stan­dard­ized tests.”

To help com­bat this report­ed con­fu­sion — and to point out that open­ing more char­ter schools should­n’t be Chicago’s only option for improv­ing pub­lic edu­ca­tion — BAM’s leaflet offered par­ents a num­ber of ques­tions that they could ask char­ter school rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Ques­tions like What per­cent­age of teach­ers at your school are cer­ti­fied? What sup­port do you offer for Eng­lish lan­guage learn­ers?” and Is there a school nurse? A guid­ance coun­selor? A social work­er?” appeared on the leaflet to help guide par­ents through the school-selec­tion process.

BAM has also tar­get­ed the Board of Edu­ca­tion direct­ly by speak­ing out at pub­lic hear­ings and meet­ings about school clos­ings and turnarounds.

We’ve par­tic­i­pat­ed in so many hear­ings and meet­ings,” says McDaniel. Our mes­sage has always been that we are against school bud­get cuts, we are against char­ter school expan­sion, we are against turn­arounds, and we are against school closures.”

In addi­tion to ral­ly­ing par­ents around the city, BAM has turned to instruc­tors for guid­ance and sup­port. The Chica­go Teach­ers Union, which has also been quick to speak up against the city’s swathe of school clo­sures in recent years, has both stood in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the group dur­ing their actions.

We see the rela­tion­ship between BAM and the CTU as an impor­tant and cru­cial one in the fight to defend and save pub­lic edu­ca­tion,” explains Vega. The bond cre­at­ed between par­ents and teach­ers is evolv­ing and will become our shield against harm­ful edu­ca­tion policies.”

In May, BAM bid farewell to the 2013 – 2014 school year by orga­niz­ing a neigh­bor­hood schools pic­nic to com­mem­o­rate the 50 schools shut­tered the pre­vi­ous June and cel­e­brate those that remain open. Though no spe­cif­ic events are yet planned for the fall, the group intends to con­tin­ue tak­ing direct action as Chicago’s war on acces­si­ble edu­ca­tion continues.

Many have already not­ed the trans­for­ma­tive lega­cy of the teach­ers’ strike in Sep­tem­ber 2012 and its impact on teach­ers’ unions across the coun­try, but that lega­cy should not be mea­sured only in terms of its impact on the labor move­ment. It has also inspired par­ents like Rouse­mary Vega, Sherise McDaniel, and Julie Fain to unite on a per­son­al lev­el for the sake of their fam­i­lies and their city.

Ulti­mate­ly,” says Fain, our goal is to work with par­ents to cre­ate net­works and con­nec­tions that can be used to oppose harm­ful poli­cies in the city’s schools. We want par­ents to know they aren’t alone, that togeth­er we are stronger.”

Crys­tal Stel­la Becer­ril is a Chica­go-based Xicana activist, writer, and pho­tog­ra­ph­er. She is cur­rent­ly a con­tribut­ing writer for Social­ist Work­er News­pa­per, Red Wedge Mag­a­zine, and Warscapes Mag­a­zine where she writes about edu­ca­tion jus­tice, race, fem­i­nism, and culture.
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