Ten days into a hunger strike by supporters of a plan to reopen Dyett High School as a neighborhood school with a focus on green technology, two members of the Chicago Board of Education called for a speedy resolution of the long-running controversy.
One hunger striker, parent Jeanette Taylor-Ramann, required medical attention during Wednesday’s board meeting and was taken to the hospital shortly after telling board members that CPS had “not followed its own process” for accepting proposals for a new school.
The district was scheduled to hold a public hearing in mid-August about three competing proposals for Dyett, but abruptly called it off a few days before and rescheduled the hearing for Sept. 15, pushing back the board’s vote on the issue.
“It has not happened because you all do not respect black and brown parents,” said Taylor-Ramann, who recently penned an op-ed in Catalyst about the hunger strike. “That’s a shame.”
The hunger strike has drawn national attention and received support from prominent figures such as American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who recently visited the group.
At his first board meeting as president, Frank Clark said he and other members of the board “understand and feel the emotion” of the Dyett supporters and are paying attention to their concerns.
“The board is not immune to the people who choose to enter into a hunger strike and put their health at stake to get a resolution of something important to them,” Clark said. “We do need to reach a conclusion. It may or may not be the conclusion that everyone wants, but a conclusion is, I think, necessary as soon as we can do that.”
Board member Mahalia Hines also said the issue had been “going on well beyond this board” and it was time to “either get a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,'” on the school’s fate.
Clark and Hines are two of three African-American members on the seven-member School Board and both have ties to South Side high schools. Clark graduated from Hirsch High School in Greater Grand Crossing and Hines worked for more than a decade as a principal at Hope College Prep in Englewood.
Support for the Dyett hunger strikers largely overshadowed the approval of a $5.7 billion operating budget, which passed unanimously and relies on $480 million in state aid that legislators have not promised. The board also approved a $1 billion borrowing plan, which will make money available for capital projects, refinancing old debt and paying for an end to swap deals.
The upcoming decision on Dyett has been many years in the making.
In 2012 under then-CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, Dyett was slated for phase out, and its final class – just 13 seniors – graduated this past school year.
Officials had cited low enrollment and poor academic performance as the reason for the closure. Yet Dyett was one of many neighborhood high schools that struggled to retain students — and the resources that come with them. (A Catalyst analysis from December showed that most neighborhood high schools enroll only one-fourth of the students living in their attendance areas, compared to half seven years prior.)
But in a surprise move last fall, district officials decided to accept proposals for a new open-enrollment school.
Three plans were submitted: a proposal for a district-run school from the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School that would focus on leadership and green technology; a contract arts school from the nonprofit Little Black Pearl; and a district-run career academy focusing on sports and entrepreneurship from former Dyett Principal Charles Campbell, who helped phase out the school. (Though Campbell’s proposal was submitted a little past the deadline, the district decided to accept it to offer the community more options, officials said.)
Several speakers at the board meeting called for an immediate decision on Dyett. Rico Gutstein, a Coalition member and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Education, was one.
“No new information will be gained by delay or a public hearing,” he said. “You know that our proposal is five years in the making, with thousands of volunteer hours by hundreds of students, parents, teachers, community residents and educational professionals collaborating to improve the education of Bronzeville’s children.”
But some officials are concerned about how the process was set up under then-CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who saw supporting neighborhood high schools as a pressing issue. She resigned in June in the wake of a federal investigation into a no-bid contract she promoted.
At the June* School Board meeting, vice president Jesse Ruiz, acting then as the interim CEO, said the process wasn’t conducted the way he’d have done it. And some observers say district officials are frustrated that the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School has taken steps to disrupt the request for proposals process by asking Little Black Pearl to withdraw its plan.
Board member Hines said her only question for the Coalition was where they would find enough students to enroll at the school. The Coalition is proposing to reopen Dyett primarily to Bronzeville-area residents, but says it will let in students from outside the neighborhood if space permits.
An analysis of utilization rates from the most recent school year shows it may be a challenge to pull in enough students. Of the 19 elementary schools that serve the greater Bronzeville area, all but four are considered significantly below capacity, with utilization rates under 50 percent at seven schools.
That’s true even after 17 Bronzeville-area public schools have closed in the last decade and a half, according to a Tribune analysis. Nearly all of those closures were due to low enrollment, with a handful for performance or facility reasons. (Though some argue Dyett could reopen as a smaller school, with space for community groups and other student supports in the building.)
The repeated shuffling of students and the opening of charters in old neighborhood schools has hit the Bronzeville area especially hard, says Eve Ewing, who was a CPS teacher at Pershing West Middle School before it closed and is now working on a dissertation about the history of Bronzeville and the effect of school closings as part of her doctoral work at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. (Ewing participated in Catalyst’s Classroom Story Slam event in June.)
On the South Side, she says, multiple generations of families often develop a strong attachment to their neighborhood school — part of the reason why people are fighting so hard to keep Dyett, a school with a name that honors the legacy of a black music teacher who taught Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington, Ewing wrote in a recent essay.
In addition, the community traditionally has mistrusted CPS officials. If the board does not choose a proposal now, Ewing says, it will shatter “the illusion that there is some kind of process,” making it difficult to convince parents that they have a say in public education.
“We already know that there is not transparency, there is not democracy in the school system,” she says. “I think this is kind of a referendum on that.”
*This story was updated at 8 a.m., Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015 to reflect that this was said at the June board meeting, not in July.
Catalyst reporter Melissa Sanchez contributed to this story.