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Protesters take over Chicago School Board meeting

Protesters lead by security from Chicago School Board meeting Wednesday December 14 2011. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times.

Protesters, lead by security from the Chicago School Board meeting, Wednesday, December 14, 2011. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times.

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Updated: January 16, 2012 10:24AM

A band of screaming protesters took over a Chicago School Board meeting Wednesday with a tag-team of chants that charged the system’s school closing policy with failing Chicago’s children and producing “chaos.’’

After about 20 minutes of protest chants, board members retreated into closed session only to emerge about two hours later and eventually approve, without comment, some of the very programs the protesters were challenging. Twelve new charter campuses were okayed.

During the height of the screaming, at least eight of the vocal group members were escorted out of board chambers by security. As each was forced from the chamber, another protester, without missing a beat, popped up in another part of the room to take over the leading of the chants.

Adourthus McDowell, a Chicago Public School parent and member of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, began the takeover by rising from his chair and interrupting a presentation by Chicago Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard on a new $660 million capital construction plan.

Using a “mic check” technique borrowed from Occupy Wall Street protestors, McDowell read from a prepared text in short bursts so comrades planted around the room could repeat his words and thereby amplify them for the crowd.

“We see through the sounds bites,’’ said McDowell, his face twisted with anger. “You have betrayed the public trust. You have failed Chicago’s children.”

Protesters charged that years of school shutdowns, turnarounds and the replacement of neighborhood schools with selective-enrollment or charter schools that admit via lottery had destabilized poor minority communities. School shake-ups have forced children to walk longer distances, through dangerous areas, to new schools that often proved to be low-scoring themselves, protestors said.

“Children have died, literally and spiritually, as a result of your policies,’’ McDowell told grim-faced board members. “You have produced chaos.’’

The group contended that both Brizard and the man who appointed him, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, “should be fired.”

The tightly-organized protest erupted after some 300 parents, students, teachers and school activists protested outside the board Tuesday night, some even battling rain to stay overnight outside.

As a result, Wednesday’s meeting was a packed affair and the first since CPS officials announced plans to phase out Dyett and Crane high schools, close four elementary schools, and replace the staffs of 10 other schools during “turnarounds.’’ Those actions are up for a February board vote.

In a surrealistic scene after board members moved into closed session, Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey grabbed the microphone and led the beginning of the public participation section of the meeting to ensure speakers who had been waiting for hours to speak could at least comment on videotape for later viewing by board members.

Perhaps absent board members left because they were having a “hard day,” Sharkey told the crowd, but as a teacher, “if you have a hard class, you can’t just take your ball and go home.”

Chicago School Board President David Vitale explained later that the board moved into closed session earlier than planned to “cool down’’ the situation, but noted that his colleagues did listen to every speaker who was still left by they time they emerged two hours later.

Vitale called it “unfortunate’’ that “the voice and conduct of a few drowned out those of all others.”

Wednesday’s protest was organized by the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, members of the Chicago Teachers Union and Occupy-Chicago, members of those groups said.

The capital construction plan that Brizard was trying to explain Wednesday includes spending $75 million to renovate Chicago Vocational High School, the site of a proposed “turnaround,’’ and to focus new construction mostly on schools that are whiter and more affluent than the district average.

The South Loop’s Jones College Prep would get a $96 million campus; Edison Park Elementary and the Clearing’s Hale Elementary would each get a $15 million building; and Bell Elementary in North Center would get a $10 million annex. Plus, a $45 million elementary school is planned for the southeast part of the city.

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