Parents’ Hunger Strike Reveals Flaws in Chicago’s Education Reforms

Activists in the ‘Fight for Dyett’ movement say city officials aren’t listening to what their community needs most.

Protest and hunger strike at Walter H. Dyett High School in Chicago. (Photo: Jim Young/Reuters)

Sep 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s a drastic, painful, potentially fatal tactic associated with third-world political movements calling attention to brutal regimes, or history lessons about legendary protest leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Cesar Chavez.

Yet activists on Chicago’s hardscrabble South Side are entering their second month of a hunger strike, launched to draw attention to the plight of a storied but downtrodden neighborhood school scheduled to close next year.

The activists say they launched the strike because city leaders, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, have repeatedly turned a deaf ear to their complaints about the fate of Walter H. Dyett High School in the historic majority-black Bronzeville neighborhood. Emanuel’s administration, they say, has also ignored their demand for a say in what happens to their community’s school—including their suggestions to junk plans to turn Dyett into a music and arts school and instead create an academy for kids who want careers in the future-facing high-tech, green-energy field.

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“The community said they wanted Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School,” Jitu Brown, one of the hunger strikers, told Chicago’s WTTW-TV on Wednesday, the 31st day of the protest. “It’s really frustrating that taxpayers have to go to this length when you realize that you’ve been rendered voiceless.”

While the “Fight for Dyett” movement has adopted desperate measures for what it sees as a desperate time, the standoff between the protesters and the powers that be is a microcosm of similar conflicts playing out nationwide.

Across the U.S. a combination of shrinking education budgets, gentrification of poor neighborhoods, and the meteoric rise of charter schools has put underperforming majority-minority schools like Dyett on the chopping block—and spurred charges of educational racism.

Dyett hunger strikers. (Photo: Twitter)

Several studies have shown that when urban school districts from Washington, D.C., to Oakland, California, have had to balance the books by closing low-enrollment, poorly performing schools, black communities are hit the hardest. But city and school officials say the enrollment numbers don’t lie: In Chicago, Dyett High’s class of 2015 had just 15 students.

But analysts say families displaced by gentrification, as well as the appeal of charter schools, is artificially driving down enrollment, undermining schools like Dyett, named for an esteemed African American music teacher whose pupils included jazz legends Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington.

“People have gotten to a level of desperation,” said Richard Gray, director of community organizing and engagement at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform. The decision to close Dyett without their input, said Gray, felt to Bronzeville community leaders “like an attack on their schools and their teachers” and proof that Rahm Emanuel “disdains their community.”

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Gentrification is “definitely” a factor in the standoff in Chicago, according to Gray. For several decades, “massive real-estate speculation” has forced the displacement of a substantial portion of residents, he said. To make affordable communities more attractive, city education administrators bypassed plans to revive traditional public schools and joined the parade toward publicly funded charter schools.

Officials “are building these charter schools and boutique [magnet] schools for affluent whites,” Gray said. “These things accumulate.”

Gary Orfield, an education and city planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and codirector of the school’s Civil Rights Project, agreed with Gray’s assessment of the situation at Dyett. A former Chicago resident, Orfield said the breakdown in communication reflects “negative racial change” in the city, and he wouldn’t be surprised if protesters in other cities mirrored the hunger-strike strategy.

“I hope that reason takes hold, and they negotiate a settlement, and these people don’t die,” Orfield said. “None of these things have been handled well.”

Ultimately, however, he said, the hunger strike could prove to be an opportunity for Emanuel, who as a congressman and chief of staff for President Barack Obama purportedly advised his staff to never let a crisis go to waste.

“This is the kind of crisis that could change things,” Orfield said.