Thursday, May 04, 2006

Kids skip class to rally, be part of a life lesson

The discourse on these marches tends to frame matters in terms of legality/illegality. Democracy, or pro democracy could offer more affirming angle. I appreciate the voices of children in this account. -Angela

Kids skip class to rally, be part of a life lesson

By Stephanie Banchero and Diane Rado, Chicago Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporters Hal Dardick, Mary Ann Fergus, Jamie Francisco, Deborah Horan, Jo Napolitano and Andrew Wang contributed to this r

Published May 2, 2006

Students across the Chicago area skipped school Monday to march for immigrant rights, taking lessons in a giant outdoor classroom that they say went far beyond anything they could learn from a book.

"I can sit in class and read textbooks all day, but I don't think I understood how America works until I came here," said Bianca Crespo, 17, a senior at Chicago's St. Benedict High School who joined marchers at Ashland Avenue and Division Street. "Now I see it's a melting pot and this is democracy."

Students said they came for their parents, who struggled to make a better life in this country, and for their own futures. And they spoke in awe of the unprecedented experience.

"This is the most important thing I've ever done in my life," said Daisy Lopez, 16, a sophomore at Blue Island's Eisenhower High School who rode a bus for 2 1/2 hours Monday morning to participate in the march.

Mainly Latino schools in Chicago reported 30 percent to 50 percent of students were absent. But at Farragut Career Academy and Benito Juarez Community Academy, about 80 percent of the high school students didn't show. Suburban schools also were affected.

Classrooms and lunchrooms were noticeably thinned out, and school hallways were unusually quiet.

Public and parochial schools alike considered the student absences unexcused, but most administrators took an understanding view, citing the rally's educational value.

"This is alive and real and in your face. You can see a movie or read a book, or you can participate," said Sandra M. Fontanez-Phelan, principal of Chicago's Kelvyn Park High School, where nearly all students are Hispanic.

Even schools with very young children saw significant drops in attendance. At the pre-K through 2nd grade Ortiz De Dominguez school in Chicago, about a third of the pupils didn't come in Monday, assistant principal Silvia Saucedo said.

Many children knew about a similar rally held in Chicago in March, she said, because their parents and siblings attended.

"A lot of people think because [the children] are so young, they don't understand, but they know what's going on," she said.

In Evanston, 111 children were reported absent at Washington Elementary School, more than 20 percent of the school population.

"I hope parents were able to turn it into a civics lesson for the kids, possibly a historic lesson," interim Principal Karen Evans said.

Absences rose in suburban schools with large Latino populations, such as Oak Terrace Elementary in Highwood and Round Lake District 116 schools.

About 400 students were absent from Romeoville High School and about 800 from Bolingbrook High School, more than 20 percent of the student bodies.

Students at the march said they understood the consequences; too many unexcused absences could mean detentions, suspensions or even worse, but that didn't matter.

Sarah Marabillas, a senior at St. Benedict, said skipping school might mean a drop in her grade and the possibility of not being able to walk across the stage and pick up her diploma.

"What is walking with your class vs. walking with your people?" she said. "I'd rather risk not being able to walk across the stage to support this cause."

Other students believed they could make a difference as well.

"I think it's good for kids to march because I think they will listen to us," said Erik Martinez, 11, who skipped 5th grade at Bateman Elementary School in Chicago. "We didn't do anything wrong, so maybe those men in Washington will listen to us and do what's good for us and all the immigrants."

For some children, the march was a personal mission.

"I'm afraid my mommy will get sent back home," said Arturo Vaca, 11, a 5th grader at Eli Whitney. "If they kick out the Mexican people, my mom will have to leave. I want to help her so she can stay here."

Arturo's 8-year-old brother, echoed those sentiments but said walking 3 miles from Union Park to Grant Park was a lot to ask of a little kid.

As he marched down Jackson Boulevard clutching a red flag, Diego Vaca said, "I want to help my mom, but I'm tired too."



  1. I can understand why some of the children are out there marching with their parents-because they are concerned for their parents' welfare; however, I disagree with the children who are out there marching saying that they rather "walk with their people than walk across the stage." I find this terribly disheartening. If they really want to make a difference, they need to be in the classrooms learning. Not getting a high school diploma is a big deal and ultimately counter productive for the Latino community as a whole. If these young people truly disagree with the policy makers, then they need to be in school, getting their high school diploma, then going on to college so that they can argue intelligently with the policy makers. These young Latinos need to have an education so that they can be smarter than those they disagree with. We can only make a true difference by having an education and a degree. Also I do not think that it should be smiled upon that children in grades pre-k -2nd are not in school on the day of the march. Those children are too young to understand the significance and the weight of this situation. They belong in school and not out on the streets marching.

  2. Like Jenny I too feel students should graduate and keep in school. Though I am proud of them for acting and being aware of the issue, we need to take the next step and teach them. I can only that the majority of these kids learned something from this experience and did not just attend for a skip day. Now is the time for all the organizations to take that next step and take the power of the organized people and channel it to elections! Things will not change if we don’t join together all the people and vote for change. A campaign to express this would be the best choice because people now are tuned to the television and radio just to hear what is next. Education needs to be made, now that the movement has grown to students, this is history, and if we don’t act it will remain the same. Reaching out to all the students, the parents, workers the importance of that voice regardless if you are able to vote or not. How they can help if they are not able to vote, though spreading the word about how change is going to happen. I hope that this next step will be taken in the next few weeks, because we can protest and protest but we need a plan with an outcome in government because after all that is who we are protesting and now that are voices and actions have been noticed, we should vote or participate and really make change. To all those high school kids, think about how you are part of something huge and what you do is going to make a huge difference, so stay in school graduate so that you can be anything you want in the future. You unlike many in the past have been giving this opportunity.

  3. I am in consensus with Jenny and Mirla- a child shouldn't have to choose between graduating high school and social activism.

  4. Students should see their education as their first priority, but it is very admirable that so many young people are showing an interest in these important issues. Perhaps if schools and teachers could make these marches and rallies a class field trip, students would not have to deal with unexcused absences and stress about missing school. Parents, schools, and teachers should create outlets for student activism and instead of penalizing students for being socially conscious, they should work together to find appropriate solutions that do not threaten a child's grades or graduation eligibility.

  5. There is no sense in taking our children out of the place where they can learn to get ahead in this country. Our childern's education is their only chance for a good future. We need to fight for our equality in academics not in the streets.

  6. Students have every right to be a part and/or be involved in any social activism that they feel their "rights" are being threatened. By not going to school a day or two will not in any way shape or form put a kid behind or jeopardize him from graduating. This constitutional right is to be used by anyone from this country, no matter the age, creed, or origin. If the school system doesnt validate it as such then its their problem and not the kids. I would encourage for some kids to get together and take it to court if they are penalized by their schools. This may unfortunatley not happen because the parent's of these kids may not have the financial resources to pull it through. Issues like these that pose harm and limits to us "HISPANICS" need to be addressed with every legal and legitamate resource availabe that we have. Stayin home, at school and not doing anything about it will only cause things to get worst against us as a whole.

  7. I think there should be a balance between learning in school and using that knowledge to apply it in real life. Students should not miss school, however, there are certain things that school cannot provide and one of them is experience. I personally think missing one or two days to be politically active is a very positive learning experience. But if you miss more than that then it will be counterproductive.