School boycotters say message was delivered

Approximately 1,000 of Chicago's 405,000 public-school students skipped the opening day of class yesterday to protest funding disparities between the city and suburban school systems.

They boarded 30 buses leaving from four Chicago churches yesterday, accompanied by parents and religious leaders, to register for classes in the wealthy New Trier school system.

"We're here today to say, enough is enough," said Rev. James Meeks, pastor of the Salem Baptist Church and House of Hope, 752 E. 114th St. on the far South Side. Meeks was one of the key organizers of the Save Our Schools Now campaign, which coordinated the boycott.

Since students had to be residents of the New Trier district, or arrive with $17,000 tuition in hand, the trip to Northfield was a symbolic gesture. Few, if any, were eligible to actually register.

Parents said the event had captured their attention.

"I really believe in what Rev. Meeks is doing. This is worth fighting for," said Nadine Taylor, a parent registering her child for the boycott. "These children are our future."

"We deserve the same education as New Trier and other Illinois communities," said Joan Douglas, one of the bus captains for the trip to New Trier.

The Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church on the West Side, said New Trier parents and school officials welcomed the city students, some lining the streets in Northfield and Winnetka with signs.

"It's real exciting," Acree said. "I never expected the good people of Winnetka to be that warm. That was surprising to me."

Meeks, also a state senator, said the boycott will move to downtown businesses the rest of the week. He challenged city businesses to support the boycott, and used the city's 2016 Olympics campaign to drive home his point. Meeks did not identify businesses would be targeted Wednesday.

"If we can bring world-class Olympics to Chicago," Meeks said, "then we can have world-class schools."

Though Chicago Public Schools officials and Mayor Richard M. Daley support revamped education funding, they strongly opposed the boycott. Board of Education president Rufus Williams urged children to immediately return to school.

"If you're not here, get here right now," Williams said. "For whatever reason you've decided not to be in school, it's not good enough."

Turnout for the boycott was lower than expected. Organizers ordered, but did not use, 30 additional buses.

Property taxes and state funds provide a majority of educational dollars. Meeks, who has fought for educational spending reform since being voted in to the state senate in 2002, is strongly opposed to the property-tax system.

"We don't believe a quality education should be based on where they live," he said.

Boycott aside, the first day of school proceeded normally for most Chicago students.

Daley opened the day by ringing a bell to begin the school year at the new Sir Miles Davis Academy, an elementary magnet school in Englewood on the South Side.

In Humboldt Park, freshman Jocelyn Cervantes, 14, headed to school accompanied by butterflies in her stomach.

"I'm a little nervious and scared about class," she said.

Though CPS officials said they would not have first-day attendance  -- a key predictor of dropout rates -- until later in the week, at least one student said he was in for the long haul.

I'm feeling good, looking forward to staying in school and making it to sophomore year," said Miguel Sanchez, 15.


Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.