Hanging on the wall at the Greer household on the South Side of Chicago, there are framed photos of Elisabeth (Heard) Greer ’95 leading protests and speaking out at Chicago school district meetings. Greer, a mom of two, says that she looks angry in all the photos, but that her husband framed them as a Christmas gift to her to celebrate the result of her activism: saving her children’s elementary school from closure.
Greer led the charge against Chicago Public Schools when the school district decided to phase out the elementary school her children attended, National Teachers Academy (NTA), and start using the building as a high school instead. NTA educates a predominantly black and low-income population, but the district’s plans for the high school called for changes to the neighborhood zoning, meaning it would draw mostly white students from a more affluent section of the area.
Greer likened the plan to gerrymandering, and knew that the students in her community would suffer if it went through. After nearly two years of protesting and a lawsuit against the school district for racial discrimination, Greer not only saved her children’s school but also co-founded a nonprofit, Chicago United for Equity (CUE), to fight segregation in the Chicago public schools and promote racial justice.
Greer says she never imagined this turn of events when she joined the local school council in 2015, when her daughter, Harmony, started kindergarten at NTA. She wanted to get involved and help support the school, which she could tell would be a great environment for her two children.
“NTA is an amazing school with an amazing staff,” Greer says, “It has a social justice curriculum, and supports the whole child: socially, emotionally, and academically. They also have music and art and drama, swimming and technology. I was so happy to have my children start there.”
The school had the highest ranking in the Chicago Public Schools evaluation system, so when the district announced it was closing the school in February 2018, the community was confused—and upset. So Greer, as the president of the local school council, started asking questions and looking for answers—and other concerned parents and the school community rallied around her.
Greer and a team of parent supporters formed CUE as a nonprofit, and then CUE led a Race Equity Impact Assessment (REIA), a systematic examination of how racial and ethnic groups will be affected by a proposed action or decision, about the decision to close NTA. The REIA protocol, which is used both in the U.S. and internationally, consulted constituents on both sides of the issue throughout the neighborhood community and at the school district. CUE found that the plan would exacerbate existing conditions of racial inequity and was not created with enough input from the local community. When the nonprofit decided to file the lawsuit on the grounds that the school district had violated the Illinois Civil Rights Act, Greer was the plaintiff against the school district.
Greer says she was motivated by “adrenaline and rage, and the injustice of it all. There was a moral imperative not to lie down.”
The school also filed an injunction to freeze the school district’s plan while the lawsuit was in progress. When the courts granted the injunction, Chicago Public Schools decided to drop its plan entirely. NTA would remain an elementary school.
NTA’s supporters found the school was saved in December 2018, and four months later, Greer still gets emotional when she talks about realizing that all their efforts had paid off. Now, CUE is working with other schools throughout the city to ensure that there is an equitable distribution of resources.
“Even as we were fighting and not knowing the outcome, we weren’t just fighting for NTA,” Greer says. “We were there to wage this fight, to make a blueprint for how you fight, for all the communities that could come after us.”
Greer’s day job is also in education. She is an English professor at the Harold Washington College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago, the city’s community college system. She’s also a second-generation City Colleges professor: her mother, Junemary Heard, taught at another City College for more than 40 years, retiring the semester before Greer joined the faculty.
Greer’s daughter Harmony is now nine and finishing up third grade at NTA, where she ran for and was elected to the student congress, after watching her mom make a difference by getting involved in the community and making her voice heard.
Her son, Noah, is five, and he also took note of his mom’s role in stopping NTA’s closure. At first, he asked her, “Why are you going to meetings all the time?”, so Greer told him about the efforts to save his school. Then, Noah started walking around at home chanting, “NTA is here to stay,” one of the slogans that Greer herself would chant at protests.
Greer acknowledges it was an emotionally draining time, but says she felt compelled to act.
“You never know when you’re going to be in a situation where you have to make a choice that can affect the rest of your life. There were so many times that I was terrified to do the thing that I was going to do next, but I felt compelled, like I had to do it anyway,” she says. “NTA is a David and Goliath story. You can go up against the system and you can win. Even though the system will tell you that it’s fruitless and you should just sit down and be quiet. You can do it.”