Chicago Parents Enter Week 2 of Hunger Strike Protesting Corporate Ed Reform and Dyett HS Closure

Yana Kunichoff

“That it’s 2015 and not 1950 and black people have to go on a hunger strike to get a neighborhood school—it says to me I’m not even human,” one parent says. (Michelle Strater Gunderson)

As schools across Chica­go begin the clean­ing and orga­niz­ing process lead­ing up to the first day of school on Sep­tem­ber 8, one will stay shut­tered. Dyett High School, in on the edge of the Bronzeville neigh­bor­hood, won’t be open­ing its doors this year.

The high school has long been in the process of clos­ing. Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS) announced in 2012 that Dyett would be phased out,” mean­ing after 2012 no new stu­dents would be admit­ted, as a result of low test scores, and the build­ing would be closed when the last class graduated.

Three years lat­er, Dyett’s doors are now closed. But the fight to reopen the school is heat­ing up. On Mon­day, August 17, 12 par­ents and neigh­bor­hood activists began a hunger strike, under the ban­ner of the Coali­tion to Revi­tal­ize Dyett High School, to demand that CPS make a deci­sion on the future of the school and reopen it as a dis­trict-run, open-enroll­ment, neigh­bor­hood school that would allow all stu­dents to attend regard­less of grades. 

CPS announced last year that it would con­sid­er pro­pos­als for a new man­ag­er and school vision for Dyett. But after months of delays, most recent­ly an August meet­ing resched­uled for Sep­tem­ber, and with a long his­to­ry of mis­trust between com­mu­ni­ty groups and the dis­trict, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers say they’ve wait­ed long enough.

The city has sab­o­taged our com­mu­ni­ty, which we know is under­go­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. Why would they close the only neigh­bor­hood high school left for our chil­dren?” Irene Robin­son, a grand­par­ent with young chil­dren that would have gone to Dyett had it not closed, said in a statement.

They are call­ing for an emer­gency hear­ing at the Board of Edu­ca­tion — and to ask CPS to make a deci­sion that isn’t based on polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy or crony­ism.” The coalition’s pro­pos­al is for a dis­trict-run, green tech­nol­o­gy school with part­ners includ­ing the Chica­go Teach­ers Union and the Chica­go Botan­ic Gar­dens. The oth­er two pro­pos­als the board will con­sid­er to replace Dyett are from an arts edu­ca­tion non-prof­it, which has pro­posed a con­tract school” that would not be run by the dis­trict, and a for­mer CPS prin­ci­pal, whose pro­pos­al does include a dis­trict-run school. But Dyett par­ents and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers say they believe the best option for future stu­dents is the pro­pos­al for­mu­lat­ed by the community. 

CPS stressed in a state­ment that the deci­sions around how Dyett will reopen will be a com­mu­ni­ty dri­ven process.” Iden­ti­fy­ing a high-qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion option for the for­mer Dyett site is a pri­or­i­ty for the Dis­trict, and CPS is review­ing school pro­pos­als to deter­mine the best open enroll­ment, neigh­bor­hood edu­ca­tion option for the site,” the state­ment continued.

But activists argue that more than the fate of Dyett is at stake in this fight. They say years of edu­ca­tion reform” have change the char­ac­ter — and school­ing options — of their neigh­bor­hood. Bronzeville has been the tar­get of many school clos­ings and reform plans in recent years — more than 15 in just over a decade. The hunger strik­ers say these changes have made pub­lic high schools that can be attend­ed with­out an appli­ca­tion process in the area sparse, hunger strik­ers say.

Jeanette Tay­lor-Raman has spent all but the last three of her 40 years liv­ing in Bronzeville, and the last few nights sleep­ing in tents near the school while on hunger strike. She says the idea that her daugh­ter may have to trav­el sev­er­al miles to the near­est open enroll­ment high school instead of attend­ing Dyett, is unfair. At issue, she says, is race.

I live in a city where the only mis­take of me and my chil­dren is being black,” she says. I live in a city where the may­or and alder­man don’t respect work­ing fam­i­lies, no mat­ter which way you try to say it.”

Tay­lor-Raman has been in a com­mu­ni­ty group, the Ken­wood-Oak­land Com­mu­ni­ty Orga­ni­za­tion (KOCO), that has been fight­ing for Dyett since the school’s phase-out was first announced. As part of the Coali­tion to Revi­tal­ize Dyett High School, Tay­lor-Raman and oth­ers have held sit-ins in City Hall, filed dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suits and pick­et­ed Board of Edu­ca­tion meetings. 

The Dyett hunger strike is only the lat­est flare-up in a pub­lic school sys­tem in tur­moil. Con­tract nego­ti­a­tions between CPS and the Chica­go Teach­ers Union remain in a stale­mate, and finan­cial woes includ­ing some bad invest­ment deci­sions (and the district’s unwill­ing­ness to rene­go­ti­ate them) have left CPS beg­ging for oper­at­ing funds from a reluc­tant state government.

The demands of the CTU and the Dyett hunger strik­ers have impor­tant over­laps. In response to CPS calls for cuts in its pen­sion con­tri­bu­tions to teach­ers, the union has said that CPS is broke on pur­pose.” Dyett hunger strik­ers also say they do not believe there is a lack of mon­ey for a neigh­bor­hood pub­lic school. Tay­lor-Raman points to the CPS pur­chase of a new build­ing in down­town Chica­go: They don’t have a bud­get cri­sis if they can pur­chase a new build­ing. Black and brown peo­ple are just not the pri­or­i­ty.” (CPS claims it pur­chased the new build­ing to save mon­ey over the long term.)

Also of great con­cern to both groups has been the sea change in the make­up of CPS. The clos­ing of 49 pub­lic schools in 2012 received a huge amount of press cov­er­age at the time. But even before that, reform mea­sures like Renais­sance 2010 and the Mid-South plan closed dozens of schools through­out the city and turned over many of the build­ings to char­ter school oper­a­tors. And in the lat­est CPS bud­get, mon­ey doled out by pro­ject­ed enroll­ment num­bers result­ed in an increase in fund­ing for char­ters, while all the schools los­ing fund­ing were run by the district.

With the addi­tion­al pos­si­bil­i­ties of a teach­ers strike still loom­ing amid con­tin­ued bud­get cuts, the com­ing CPS school year will like­ly be one of con­tin­ued protests.

The tac­tic of hunger strikes around social jus­tice issues has a long his­to­ry in Chica­go. Lit­tle Vil­lage Lawn­dale High School, a social jus­tice-focused high school, was opened fol­low­ing a hunger strike, and a group of res­i­dents in the Pilsen neigh­bor­hood stopped eat­ing to demand the clo­sure of a pol­lut­ing, now-shut­tered coal pow­er plant.

With schools set to open in less than two weeks, it remains to be seen how the hunger strik­ers pres­sure will bear fruit. But that his­to­ry of edu­ca­tion­al jus­tice activism has helped Tay­lor-Raman spur her con­tin­u­ing fast, she says.

That it’s 2015 and not 1950 and black peo­ple have to go on a hunger strike to get a neigh­bor­hood school — it says to me I’m not even human,” she says.

Yana Kuni­choff is a Chica­go-based inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and doc­u­men­tary pro­duc­er. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Pacif­ic Stan­dard and the Chica­go Read­er, among oth­ers. She can be reached at yanaku­ni­choff at gmail​.com.
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