The parents, grandparents, educators and clergy have been starving themselves since Aug. 17, subsisting only on water and juice. The hunger strikers, who are now on Day 30 of their protest, joined scores of demonstrators who have taken to marching in candlelight vigils to President Barack Obama’s home in Chicago every night.
About 3,000 petitioners have signed on to the advocates’ cause, and they have received support from across the nation and across the globe.
What’s at stake?
The fate of a closed high school on the South Side of Chicago that had dwindled to 13 students last school year.
To hear the hunger strikers tell it – their numbers increased from a dozen to 15 on Sept. 9 – the predominantly African-American Walter H. Dyett High School didn’t just die a slow death. Chicago Public Schools (CPS), they say, with a governing board appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, had plotted its demise for years.
“This school was killed by CPS,” said Jitu Brown, a hunger striker, protest organizer and member of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School.
“We’re starving all because we want a voice in what’s happening in a regular public school and we will be until CPS negotiates in good faith because we’re willing to negotiate, we’re willing to come to consensus, but we’re not willing to have crumbs and then have them say it’s a cake.”
Advocates seeking to revive the school as the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology Community High School thought they would have a chance to make their case at a Sept. 15 CPS hearing. A scheduled August hearing was canceled. CPS offered no public explanation for canceling that hearing.
But the September hearing was pre-empted by CPS’s Sept. 3 surprise announcement that Dyett would start the 2016-17 academic year as an open-enrollment, arts-oriented public high school. And the green school’s backers are concerned that could be a first step toward a charter school. One of three proposals considered by CPS starting in the spring was for an arts-themed charter school, the Little Black Pearl.
Critics of Emanuel note the mayor has closed some 50 community schools in mostly African-American and Latino neighborhoods in the past two years, as part of what they call an effort to disinvest in and gentrify communities of color and, in some cases, to make them charter schools. Dyett also sits four blocks from Obama’s Chicago home and near one proposed site of the Obama Presidential Library, fueling speculation that Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, would want to gentrify the neighborhood.
The school sits in the heart of Bronzeville, which has a rich history as the destination for Blacks fleeing rampant racism in the South and has been home to Ida B. Wells, a civil rights activist, journalist and co-organizer of the NAACP; former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, Nat King Cole; Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, artist, author, and one of the co-founders of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago; Pulitzer-prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls.
The school’s namesake, Walter Dyett, an African-American who taught at Chicago high schools, mentored musicians including Muddy Waters, Nat King Cole and Bo Diddley.
Charter schools have proved a hot-button issue in cities across the country. Supporters say that giving parents, fed up with failing schools, some choice will create competition and lead to better educational options. But opponents, including teachers unions, argue not all parents will be able to choose to leave their neighborhood schools, increasing inequality, and say allowing public schools to fail will not benefit a school system as a whole.
In a Seattle charter movement bankrolled by, among others, Bill Gates, the state’s highest court just ruled the 2012 law establishing charter schools violates the state constitution. The court’s chief justice said the central issue at hand was not the merits of charter schools but whether they were eligible for public funds and concluded they’re not because they’re run by private organizations, not managed by school systems or controlled by voters.
Still the popularity of charter schools has surged. Their numbers have increased from when Minnesota enacted the first law legalizing charter schools in 1991 to 42 states and the District of Columbia in 2014, with 6,700 charter schools enrolling 2.9 million, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, based in Washington, D.C.
In Baltimore, a group of charter schools recently sued the city school system, arguing the district’s funding formula for charters violates state law and has diminished the 26 schools’ ability to educate students. The Baltimore Sun reported the schools, with a combined enrollment of 3,600, are among the highest-performing schools in the city and that many have waiting lists.
The latest Chicago twist, which stunned observers outside Emanuel’s inner circle, came after those seeking to save Dyett spent six years devising a 57-page, detailed plan to revive the school as Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology Community High School. CPS had announced in 2012 that Dyett would be phased out because of poor performance and declining enrollment.
Yet even in recent years, Dyett had been thriving, For instance, in 2008 it showed a 41 percent increase in the number of its graduates going to college, the biggest growth of its kind in the city. The school also created a nationally-recognized restorative justice program and a highly-successful program to help students with average grades prepare for college.
And in 2011, Dyett beat out 400 other schools to win a $4 million ESPN “Rise Up” grant used to build a new gym, weight room and swimming pool. The students never got to use the facilities, while other community members did, after CPS announced it would phase out the school by 2015.
The green school advocates, who include the Chicago Teachers Union, say CPS continually eroded Dyett, eliminating teacher positions and successful programs and closing schools that send students to Dyett, further reducing its enrollment, while urging students in the area to attend other high schools. Some of those campuses are 16 miles away.
In 2011, a study by the University of Illinois, Chicago contrasted Dyett with Lakeview High School, a predominantly White school on the northern side of Chicago. Lakeview had 12 advanced-placement courses. Dyett had none. Lakeview had Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Italian and French – regular and honors classes. Dyett had beginning Spanish courses. Lakeview had an art room, photography and studio art classes, a concert chorus and a band. Dyett has an art course and a beginning music course.
The reasons for the stark contrasts, in Brown’s view: “It’s structural racism and institutional racism at its worst. Our White brothers and sisters on the other side of town have world-class neighborhood schools, and it’s not because their children are smart. It’s not because their children work harder because they don’t. It’s because they’re valued, and they don’t have to protest.”
In a statement emailed on Sept. 11, CPS spokeswoman Traci Daniels said: “CPS has made its decision to reopen Dyett as an open-enrollment, neighborhood school with an arts focus – a decision celebrated last week by a broad coalition of community groups, clergy, and elected officials representing Bronzeville and the larger South Side community.”
Emanuel’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Part of the debate also includes political differences. The mayor has battled both the Chicago Teachers Union, which went on an eight-day strike in 2012, and a grassroots advocacy group, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (known as KOCO), over the lack of affordable housing, school privatization, gentrification and neglect involving communities of color. KOCO supports the Dyett green school plan.
In a Sept. 3 statement, CPS said the arts-focused school would have about 550 students when fully enrolled, with neighborhood residents given the first priority.
The statement also said the school would include an “innovation technology lab” and a “variety of rigorous academic and extracurricular options for children and families,” including STEM, fine arts and alternative programs for struggling students.
The school will also allow the gym and swimming pool to be used by the community when not being used by the school.
CPS had put out a request for proposals for Dyett and received three: the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology Community High School as the hub for a “sustainable community school village,” the Little Black Pearl, an arts-oriented charter school and a sports-focused school.
That infuriated the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett, whose detailed proposal tapped into partnerships and the expertise of the University of Illinois, Chicago, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Chicago Botanic Garden, Teachers for Social Justice, KOCO and the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago.
“The proposal is really a culmination of six years of trying to develop a connected vision of high schools and feeder schools, a vertical curriculum alignment with parents working together with teachers and parents knowing the students and teachers who coming are coming up through the high school,” said Rico Gutstein, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago and member of Teachers for Social Justice, who helped write the proposal.
Like others, Gutstein says he is mystified about why CPS, seemingly out of the blue, came up with its plan, which he calls kind of a “grab bag of various things they put together.”
The Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology Community High School plan has drawn widespread praise. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called it the best plan for a school she has seen in 30 years. And Jeannie Oakes, a University of California, Los Angeles professor and president of the American Educational Research Association, comprising faculty members at colleges of education nationwide, wrote an open letter in support of the Dyett green school plan.
“Its plan taps into these impressive, high-capacity community partners to create an academically rich curriculum focused on helping the young people in the neighborhood succeed and achieve,” Oakes wrote. “The plan is also grounded in the strongest evidence we have about programs and practices most likely to increase the achievement and success (i.e., graduation rates, post high school benefits of the communities’ young people).”
She cited an engaging curriculum focusing on critical thinking and problem-solving, more teacher training and professional development, programs to help disadvantaged children overcome challenges like poverty and poor nutrition, ”transformational parent and community engagement” and links between the school’s success and community development.
Restoring the quality of education on the South Side keeps Jeannette Taylor-Ramann going on the hunger strike.
“What I hope happens is that parents and teachers and community groups around the city realize that we deserve better and will get it if we fight this machine together,” she said.
“CPS is doing what it’s great at. They’re ignoring low-income and working families, not worried about community, just doing what they want to do,” added Taylor-Ramann, a 40-year-old mother of five who just became a grandmother for the first time, to McKenze Nicole Taylor.
Jawanza B. Malone, a KOCO organizer, said he’s all too familiar with Emanuel’s tactics. “This is Rahm again making decisions for the community, and his subjects are supposed to just roll over and take it,” Malone said.
“The strike in the first place was because for years, the community had been ignored around this issue. And they’re still being ignored. Their voices have been silenced.”
Gary Gately is a freelance journalist based in Baltimore. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, CBS News, The Crime Report and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.