On a hunger strike for 30-days, 15 determined community activists have vowed to do whatever it takes to save Walter H. Dyett High School. They blame the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) of allegedly deliberately destabilizing, disinvesting and disenfranchising African American and Latino schools especially.
Hunger strikers, won’t apologize for rushing the stage during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s recently held budget hearing that caused his security to rush him out of the building. While some felt they were disrespectful, hunger striker Jitu Brown says, “Nobody is criticizing the sabotaging of Dyett High School or the thousands of voices of Bronzeville who were ignored.” They are tired of the mayor ignoring their demands and have pushed the envelope to get his attention including chaining themselves outside of his fifth floor City Hall office.
A familiar with the handwriting on the wall; that is, school closings in black and brown communities, turnarounds, replacements with privately-run charter schools with selective admissions and phase-out programs, the Dyett 15 have good reasons for fighting back and they have the community’s support.
Brown said these so-called reform pro- grams result in the firing of seasoned mostly black teachers and staff who are replaced with young, white teachers who are paid less but lack educational experience. He said these school schemes disrupt, destabilize and disenfranchise students and the community and that the disinvestment in Dyett is crystal clear.
In 2011, they watched as CPS cut, closed and transformed Dyett and feeder schools alike, cutting the Advancement Via Individual Determination program from Dyett which prepared students for college and the workplace. CPS cut the schools Advance Placement (AP) classes as well as eliminated the LOVE/Young Men of Dyett programs which mentored both male and female students.
Trouble and the obvious disinvestment in Dyett began in 1999 when CPS converted the school from middle to high school but failed to provide any school resources. The coalition said on opening day Dyett had seven books in its library and “unequipped science labs; yet the school was expected to meet district performance standards.”
Strangely, in that same year, CPS invested $24 million to convert King high School into a selective enrollment magnet school. “Dyett has 25.6 percent special needs students, but has not received adequate resources to serve them.”
Painting a picture of disinvestment to Dyett even more clearly, Brown said back in 2008,
Dyett had the largest number of students going to college. “We had a nationally recognized Restorative Justice and Education to Success program that helped to double graduation rates and raise college attendance by 41 percent. CPS refused to fund this program and also cut Dyett’s Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) college preparatory program.
CPS also cut Dyett’s truancy prevention program which the coalition says provided mentoring including a Saturday school that included an effective reading program. CPS also cut a counselor and an assistant principal.
The coalition says CPS has closed, turned around or converted to charter or selective enrollment, 20 schools near Dyett, and between 2005 and 2010,four high schools near Dyett were closed. Pointing a finger at CPS, Brown said this further destabilized a community already under attack with the razing of public housing coupled with gentrification. Brown and fellow Hunger Striker and Community Activist Cathy Dale said they are tired of the student shuffle that sometimes places children miles away from home in harm’s way and into the crossfire of gang turf wars.
Located in Washington Park, thanks to the Chicago Botanical Garden partnering with Dyett, there is an urban garden key to the Coalition’s demands for a green technology curriculum. The coalition watched as CPS peeled away supporting programs that were increasing the graduation rates and improving school attendance.
“In 2011, we won the ESPN “Rise Up” Award. We beat out 400 other schools around the country and won a $4 million renovation to our athletic facilities. The next year they voted to phase the school out,” Browns said. “The gym has been renovated, but the students never got to use it.” Dale said, now the students have to take gym online. “How do you take gym online?”
The Board of Education voted to phase out Dyett in 2012 citing poor performance and decided to send the students to Phillips High School even though Philips is reportedly doing no better than Dyett according to district performance measures.
The Dyett 15 coalition is interested in the students and providing them with the best education—one that will prepare them for college and for a global career, not in the arts as the mayor has so deemed.
“We were forced into this route,” Dale said referring to their hunger strike. “We’ve been working on Dyett for five-years or more. We’ve done everything humanly possible to support our children and get the support they need but the board has consistently ignored us and taken services away from our schools.” Dale said when Mayor Emanuel closed 50 schools, they said, “Enough is enough.”
To get what they want for their students, Brown said, “We had to starve ourselves, but just last week, the mayor and CPS/CEO Forrest Claypool held a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Lincoln Park High School to announce a $21 million annex which the parents did not want.”
Brown and Dale said this is a fight for self-determination, and they have remained united in their requests versus the mayor’s desire to have Dyett as an arts school with a technology hub something Brown and Dale said “thousands of Bronzeville residents do not want.” “We did everything above and beyond what parents are supposed to do and be- cause there was no vision for our children from CPS, we created one,” said Brown.
“Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School is not just about one school,” he said. “We gave the district a K-12 system of education in Bronzeville with Dyett and seven feeder schools connected to the program with vertical curriculum alignment.”
Brown said students would have a curriculum that prepared them for a global leadership in green technology course of study. “We have letters of support from seven local school councils saying they wanted to be a part of this.
“We had education experts from all over the country including the American Educational Research Association (AERA) headed by Jeannie Oakes who told Brown, “it was one of the best proposals for a school she has ever seen, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said it was the best proposal she’s ever seen.” Said Brown.
Brown said parents have attended the Board of Education “sham” meetings where they were given two-minutes to speak but they believe “the decisions were made behind closed doors.”
Brown said they were particularly upset with some African American ministers who were aligned with the mayor and who allegedly paid protesters $25 each to oppose the Dyett parents. Brown said, “They then cashed in on the School Safe Passage Way contracts.” Brown said these ministers “had nothing to do with saving Dyett” and he resents their engaging in politics just to “feed at the trough of the mayor at the expense of the children.” Dale added “All of these people have consistently sold out our community. They supported the closing of our schools, and we are the ones who did the work….”
With community consensus, the Dyett 15 said there was an overwhelming demand for a Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. “We are willing to negotiate with CPS, but we will not be excluded from a school we have fought for, suffered for and struggled to save,” the Dyett 15 said in a statement. Dale said their plan will provide “sustainable jobs.”
Rather, they are committed to these demands:
• A school with a global leadership curriculum.
• A school with green technology in the name with green technology curriculum.
• A school with vertical curricular alignment with the 6 feeder schools identified in the proposal.
• Dyett as a community school (open until 7 p.m. daily, with programs and resources for parents, students and the community).
• Dwayne Turner, a long-time CPS educator who lives in Bronzeville and former principal who respects community input, to serve as the principal of Dyett.
• The school must retain the name Walter H. Dyett who was a violinist and CPS music educator, and
• The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett must be fully represented with no fewer than six people on the de- sign/planning team of the school.
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) issued a statement in favor of the then Dyett 12, now 15, saying, “We are in full solidarity with the activists’ decision to remain on a hunger strike. This community does not deserve watered-down compromise deals among the mayor’s political allies that CPS crafted in backrooms and without the participation of the very people who have successfully fought to re-open Dyett High School.”