The struggle for the future of Dyett High School in Chicago, when it reopens for the 2016-17 school year, is clearly local, but it’s also part of a bigger struggle encompassing national concerns such as equality of opportunity, charter schools, mayoral control, and even civil and human rights.
Jitu Brown and April Stogner, two of about a dozen activists who launched a hunger strike two and a half weeks ago, were in Washington today to meet with US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who used to be CEO of Chicago Public Schools, the district that phased out Dyett until it closed in June, graduating fewer than 20 students.
Mr Brown leads an activist group known as Journey for Justice. I had the enlightening pleasure of chatting with him in January 2013 about Dyett and schools in other cities—New Orleans, Philadelphia, Oakland, and Detroit—on the sidewalk in front of the US Department of Education as his group led a protest march down the street to the King Memorial. What was at that time the beginning of a phase-out period for Dyett, including stripping classes to the bare minimum and excluding honors classes, AP, arts, business, computer science, foreign language, and most courses that fall outside the traditional academic core, turned into a closure of the school last year, as most students could find better educational opportunities at other schools in the city.
In order to close more than four dozen schools, the City of Chicago had to convince parents that the schools needed to close. The easiest way to do that is to reduce the number of students at the schools, and that is most efficiently accomplished by making the school so bad that no actual kid even wants to go to school there. That’s what happened at Dyett: As the city stripped classes away and narrowed the curriculum to the lowest quality education the city could get away with, kids departed, leaving mostly students at the school whose parents had no other options. When that happened, test scores started plummeting. The city was then even more justified in closing the school.
Mr Brown is in Washington again
The meeting with Mr Duncan was described as exploratory. “There were no commitments made,” the Chicago Sun-Times quoted Mr Brown as saying. “They were empathetic and said they are thinking about what they can do.”
Ms Stogner said the meeting went well: “We talked to people who were concerned with our concerns.” She and Mr Brown said they plan to stay in Washington Thursday, on Day 18 of the hunger strike, and try to get a meeting with someone at the White House.
My take on the hunger strike is a serious one. The protesters aren’t suing the Chicago Public Schools in order to protect their civil rights through the courts. No, they’re evoking images of Gandhi by risking their lives for this cause. That is, it seems to be more than, “We want equal educational opportunities for our kids.” It’s more like, “Chicago leadership, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is oppressing us, and we need to turn to desperate measures and to the federal government to resolve what should be a local issue.”
Mr Brown has said, by his hunger strike, that he’s willing to die on his sword for this issue, and he may have to—figuratively. Leadership in Chicago has shown little regard for the education of students at Dyett in the past, and there’s no reason to expect that to change without the intervention of a higher power. And I don’t mean the higher power of union presidents, although their showing up today certainly added a national sense to the meeting.
But if Dyett is to reopen next year as an open-enrollment neighborhood high school, efficiently providing a quality education to anybody who wants it there, it’s going to take more than empathy from federal officials. It’s going to take more than protests, even if those protests rise to the level of a hunger strike. That’s because Mr Emanuel has an agenda for the neighborhood around Dyett that apparently doesn’t include educating the people who live there. As wrong as that seems, he seems to have no legal roadblock to doing it.
Which makes me wonder, Why is it so bad to close a high school? Lincoln-Way North is closing, and the situation there is completely different from that at Dyett. People are upset, but kids are just going to go to another school and graduate from there instead of graduating from North. Most of them will end up going to Lincoln-Way East, which, unlike Dyett students’ other options, is just as good a school as North is. There are no hunger strikes, and nobody’s talking about violating civil rights because a district is closing a great high school.
However, the leadership of Chicago Public Schools, including Mr Emanuel, started working toward the closure of Dyett long ago, when nobody really noticed. As good classes are stripped from the curriculum, kids leave. As more kids leave, the school propels itself toward closure on simple inertia. And that’s really the first moment people start talking about civil rights, when kids would have to travel through unsafe areas just to get to school. But it’s simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. We wouldn’t be here if the district had continued to invest in Dyett as it has in so many other schools that don’t serve low-income students of color. Yet here we are.