Dyett hunger strike highlights CPS’ broken promises

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Mayor Emanuel gets an earful at first city budget hearing

Photo by Max Herman

Supporters of Dyett High School, including former student Darletta Scruggs, questioned Mayor Rahm Emanuel about underfunding public schools at the mayor's first city budget forum, which was held at Malcolm X College on August 31, 2015.

There’s a remarkable energy about the Dyett High School hunger strikers, who—despite political and fiscal crises engulfing the city and state—seem to have captured this political moment.

You could see it in their faces late Monday night, after meeting with Mayor Rahm Emanuel following his budget hearing at Malcolm X College. There’s a great weariness, a physical exhaustion, but beneath that there’s a deep, abiding patience, a profound determination. They’ve made their decision, they’re committed to their goal, and they’re in this to the end.

Now in its third week, the hunger strike—and the demand that Chicago Public Schools accept a community proposal for an open-enrollment high school at Dyett, which was phased out starting in 2012—dominated Emanuel’s first budget hearing Monday night. Judging from the chants that repeatedly erupted, well over half of the 700-plus attendees were Dyett supporters.

In the subsequent meeting between the mayor and strikers, according to participants, CPS chief Forrest Claypool took the position that more time was needed to consider proposals for the school, and Emanuel stressed the “process” he’s put in place to determine the school’s future. The meeting ended after hunger striker Anna Brown collapsed and was wheeled out of the room.

Brown had grown emotional while recounting challenges her children have faced due to broken promises following the merger of Overton and Mollison elementary schools two years ago, said fellow hunger striker Jeanette Taylor-Ramann, who’s on Mollison’s local school council and an activist with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

“They haven’t done anything they promised to do,” Taylor-Ramann said, including providing support services for students. Mollison parents have complained the school is overcrowded, has insufficient space for special-needs students and has no librarian.

That’s part of a long history of bad faith on CPS’s part, in her view. The “process” Emanuel alluded to “is tainted,” she said. It goes back to the closing of many of Bronzeville’s schools over the past decade. It includes CPS officials meeting with parent activists about their plan to stabilize neighborhood schools by coordinating their curricula and programs around green technology and global leadership—without telling them that Dyett and other schools in the plan were slated for closing.

It includes issuing a request for proposals for Dyett despite widespread community support for the plan developed by the Coalition to Save Dyett. That came after the coalition forced Emanuel (then facing a tough reelection campaign) to promise to reopen the school. Two competing plans—one submitted after CPS extended the RFP’s deadline —were inspired by politicians “as a way to get us into a battle between three groups,” Taylor-Ramann maintains.

It includes a last-minute postponement of a hearing on Dyett. And it includes Emanuel’s post-election backtracking, saying he’s now reconsidering his promise to reopen Dyett.

When North Side parents object to new charter schools, or Hyde Park parents complain about overcrowding, they get immediate action, Taylor-Ramann points out. “Why are we treated differently?” she asks. “These people don’t respect black people, period.”

Here’s the crux: the coalition represents the parents and community members who’ve been struggling for many years—with significant success, despite lack of support from the top—to support Bronzeville students and improve their schools. Dyett is routinely described as “chronically failing,” but that’s far from the whole story. Built as a middle school, Dyett was “reinvented” as a high school in 1999, consistently underresourced, and destabilized when Englewood High was closed and 125 of its students were sent to Dyett.

The community stepped up. Taylor-Ramman describes extensive efforts to support 7th and 8th graders in feeder schools with the transition to high school, out of recognition that freshman year is when many at-risk students drop out. (She’s written about her involvement at Catalyst Chicago, The Chicago Reporter’s sister publication.) Community groups turned around the school’s culture with a successful, student-led restorative justice program—Dyett students, including many who had previously had discipline problems, were asked to train students in other schools in peace circles and similar techniques—and with leadership development and college preparation programs.

Discipline problems dropped dramatically; in-school arrests declined by 82 percent. The school’s graduation rate doubled, and college attendance climbed by 41 percent. In 2008, an education expert at the Chicago Urban League called it “a remarkable success.”

The student body mobilized to win a multimillion-dollar makeover of the school’s gym from ESPN and the Chicago Bulls in 2011. Months later, CPS decided to phase the school out. Students were barred from using the new athletic facilities which they had worked to get. They had to go online to take gym.

“This is about disinvesting in black and brown low-income working families,” Taylor-Ramann said. “This is about racism and classism.”

These are people who have been engaged in these schools and committed to these students over many years, while administrations come and go at CPS and City Hall. In a better world—in a better democracy—they would be making the decisions, and the politicians and bureaucrats would be their servants.