Hungry for equality in Chicago Public Schools

September 1, 2015

Elizabeth Schulte and Rigo Gogol report from Chicago on a two-week-old hunger strike that is part of the struggle to save and revitalize a South Side high school.

"I'M HERE today because we have been pushed to the point of putting our bodies on the line. I'm here to say enough is enough. To say that we are tired of the destabilizing of our schools."

These are the words of veteran community organizer Jitu Brown, one of 12 parents, teachers and activists taking part in a hunger strike to save Dyett High School on Chicago's South Side.

On August 17, the first day of the hunger strike, Brown told the press gathered in front of the shut-down school:

We are tired of schools that have been sabotaged from the beginning and labeled as failing, and our children being shipped around from school to school as if they don't matter, while on the other side of town children have Mandarin Chinese...They have all the opportunities they need while our children have to go to schools where they have to take art and physical education as online classes.

Members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett School are demanding that the city accept community members' proposal to transform Dyett--the only public, open-admissions high school left in this historic Black neighborhood--and reopen it as an open-enrollment Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology Academy, run by the Chicago Public Schools.

At the hunger strike for Dyett High School in Chicago
At the hunger strike for Dyett High School in Chicago (Truman Buffett)

Dyett is among dozens of schools in poor, predominately Black neighborhoods that Chicago's unelected Board of Education has starved of resources for years. In 2012, Dyett was slated to be phased out and closed. A year later, the board voted to close 49 elementary schools--again, all in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the city has sold off public education to the highest bidder--either with the construction of charter schools or privately operated "public" schools like the ones CPS put in "turnaround," firing the entire staff and handing management over to a private company called Academy for Urban School Leadership, where discipline and rigorous test preparation are the priority over critical thinking and scholarship.

The board decided in 2012 that Dyett would no longer accept new students, and when its last class graduated, it would close down. Elementary schools that fed into Dyett were also closed.

Dyett students were given online classes in physical education, arts and Spanish. This was a humiliating practice, as the students and staff were abandoned, and the school dwindled to 13 students in its last graduating class. It is expected to close completely this fall.

OVER THE last two weeks, hunger strikers have maintained their picket in front of the school, sleeping at night at Operation Rainbow/PUSH headquarters. They have been joined by supporters from across the city and the country, who have tried to help keep this struggle in the spotlight.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union, from rank-and-filers to union officers, have been down to Dyett from day one. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery joined hunger strikers at a press conference on August 25.

The next day, hunger strikers organized a sit-in at City Hall where four people were arrested. The day after that, Dyett parents delivered a letter to City Hall signed by 17 doctors and nurses describing the health dangers of going without solid food for 11 days, and urging the mayor to meet with hunger strikers.

Messages of solidarity have come in from around the country and the world, and supporters are calling and e-mailing Mayor Rahm Emanuel to demand he meet with the hunger strikers.

But Emanuel refuses to take the strikers seriously--even after a hunger-striking grandmother had to be hospitalized. He didn't even acknowledge their existence until the 11th day of the strike, telling reporters, "There's a lot of high schools in that area."

But Dyett isn't just any school. It's the last open-enrollment neighborhood high school in the area. All the other high schools are selective enrollment and underperforming contract and alternative schools.

This is the latest chapter in community members' long struggle to defend Dyett and quality public education for their kids. Local activists, including Jitu Brown's Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and parents from the local school council, have long fought to improve the underfunded school.

These efforts had begun to pay off, according to Brown. In 2008, Dyett had the largest increase of students going to college in the entire city. For two straight years, in 2008 and 2009, the school had the largest decrease in arrests and suspensions, thanks to its restorative justice program. In 2011, it won the ESPN Rise Up award.

The next year, however, CPS decided to phase out Dyett. Community members formed the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School, and they were able to push back against the plans to close the school. Then, when the group submitted its proposal to revitalize the school, CPS decided it would open up the proposal process.

There were two additional proposals for Dyett: One from the non-profit Little Black Pearl, which operates a contract school in the North Kenwood-Oakland area--and another, which CPS accepted despite the fact that it was submitted after the official deadline, for an athletic career academy.

Emanuel has hinted that CPS may not need any school to replace Dyett, telling reporters, "How do you talk about another one when even some of the high schools within the three-mile radius are not at capacity yet?" The next hearing on the future for Dyett is scheduled for September 15--it was postponed from an original date in August. The Board of Education is expected to vote on the issue on September 29.

THE STRUGGLE at Dyett is linked to the larger fight against what has become a two-tiered education system in Chicago--one for the rich and one for the poor.

Chicago parents waged a similar fight in 2001, when 14 parents and grandparents in Chicago's La Villita (Little Village) neighborhood launched a hunger strike on Mother's Day to demand a new high school to relieve overcrowding in neighborhood schools. The 19-day strike forced the city to provide a new school.

The Dyett struggle is also a fight against for-profit school reform, which lines the pockets of charter and contract school operators, as well as testing corporations, at the expense of children and their teachers.

For the hunger strikers, this struggle is about more than public school kids getting an education--it's about raising the bar on what public school children deserve. Their 53-page proposal for Dyett, submitted in April, includes a well-rounded curriculum that is typically only seen in private schools. It proposes courses in music, art and world languages, but also includes resources to address the needs of the community, such as after-school clubs and counseling services.

CPS's gross mistreatment of Dyett parents, students and teachers has brought them all together and made them determined to fight. As Hunger striker Jeanette Taylor-Ramann wrote in the Catalyst:

I never wanted to be in front of a camera. All I wanted was to be part of my kids' education and be part of the solution. I just wanted to drop my children off and know that they would be educated the way I was. But I found every day that that was far from the reality.

I now want children in this city and country to know that there are people out there fighting, willing to go hungry--for them.

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