For the 14 years of Mayor Daley’s reign over the school system, community organizations have picked their battles, mainly protesting something the School Board wanted to do to the schools in their own communities.

Now they’re trying to get together to present an ongoing united front on major issues.

Over the past 10 days, almost 700 parents, teachers, students and community activists turned out for events aimed at creating citywide movements to right what they believe is wrong with the Chicago Public Schools. One event was organized by the vocal and sometimes strident critics of the school system; the other by a generally more diplomatic group.

On Monday, almost 200 parents, community leaders and students gathered for a “seminar” on the history of school reform, delivered in part by individuals who lead the fight to develop the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988. (Having covered that history for the Chicago Sun-Times, I provided political and racial context. You can listen to an earlier speech on the same topic here. Read a Catalyst timeline of school reform here.)

The meeting’s organizers, generally the diplomats, hailed from several community organizations and the programmatic coalitions they have created with the backing of local and national foundations — for example, the Albany Park Neighborhood Council and the Grow Your Own (teacher) and (student) VOYCE coalitions, and TARGET Area Development Corporation and the PRISE Reform coalition. Professors Charles Payne of the University of Chicago and Steve Tozier of University of Illinois at Chicago also participated.

While the School Board’s lack of support for local school councils was a theme, the group mainly sought to learn from past successes and mistakes and see whether a common agenda could be found across racial and geographic lines.

“No matter how well intended, top-down power alone will never give us the schools we want,” said Payne. “That power needs to be held in check.”

Payne suggested a few items for the agenda: Reducing the level of inter-ethnic conflict in schools and honing in on “what happens between teacher and student.”

Nine days earlier, on Jan. 10, some 500 people gathered at Malcolm X College to protest developments in the Chicago Public Schools ranging from the “militarization” of high schools (i.e. the district’s military magnet schools) to gentrification. But mainly they protested Renaissance 2010 and its school closings, displaced teachers and private school operators.

“I didn’t become a teacher so I could work for corporate America,” said Carol Reynolds, a teacher at Social Justice High School who previously worked at a charter school run by the powerful United Neighborhood Organization. She called that school “a nightmare.”

The meeting was initiated by CORE, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, an emergent faction in the currently fractious Chicago Teachers Union. Even though CORE is critical of the union’s leadership and wants to “democratize” the union, CTU President Marilyn Stewart spoke at the event. Other organizers included PURE (Parents United for Responsible Education) and Blocks Together.

While different in tone, both groups set their sights on creating diverse coalitions. Both were distant echoes of the mass brain-storming session that the late Mayor Harold Washington called in the wake of the record-long 1987 teacher strike, which lit the fuse for the school system’s overhaul in 1988.

–Linda Lenz with Catalyst intern Daniela Bloch

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