Meet the Chicago Mom Who Starved Herself for Better Schools
It was a murder that shocked the nation. Two and a half years ago, a six-month-old baby was shot five times and killed in a drive-by shooting as her father changed her diaper in the passenger seat of his minivan, just south of Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood.
This is the story Jeanette Taylor-Ramann chose to share when asked why she went without food for 30 days in protest of the city’s plans for a school located on the other side of that park in her neighborhood. The tragic death of Jonylah Watkins, the baby caught in the hail of bullets intended for her gang-involved father, said Taylor-Ramann, exemplifies the violence, poverty, and city’s neglect of the Bronzeville neighborhood, home to the now-shuttered Walter H. Dyett High School.
“They’re building a new Chicago, and it’s pushing out black and brown, low-income families,” Taylor-Ramann told TakePart.
Dyett has been the focal point of a debate between parents, teachers, community members, and the Chicago Public Schools, culminating in a hunger strike that was ongoing as of Friday. The groups have sparred with the school district, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and local Alderman Will Burns since 2009, when the district first announced plans to phase out and shut down the storied high school.
Bronzeville was once known as the “Black Metropolis”—noted African Americans such as Louis Armstrong, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, and Ida B. Wells once called the neighborhood home. However, with the elimination of restrictive housing covenants, middle-class residents began to move to Chicago’s suburbs. The fortunes of Bronzeville began to decline.
Dyett had educated the neighborhood’s population since 1972. Erana Jackson Taylor, a 1982 alumna of the school, has protested alongside and supported the hunger strikers, in part because it’s important to her to preserve the history of her alma mater and its role as a community hub. The pool adjacent to the school, once open to the community but now private, is where she learned to swim and served as a life guard, and where she later taught all of her five kids to swim.
“The Dyett name is a very big part of Bronzeville,” Jackson Taylor told TakePart. “If you want to destabilize a neighborhood, the first thing you do is take away their school.”
By the 2013–14 school year, only 108 students were enrolled at Dyett, according to the school report card from the Illinois State Board of Education. Ninety percent of the kids came from low-income homes, and 37 percent received some form of special education services. Yet, 84 percent of students graduated that year, above CPS’ overall rate of 81 percent. Dyett was, advocates say, on the upswing.
In 2011, the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School, of which Taylor-Ramann is a member, put together a proposal to convert the school into a global leadership and green technology school. The proposal was circulated but largely ignored until December 2014, when CPS issued a call for proposals for Dyett’s reopening. Activists such as Taylor-Ramann were frustrated and felt ignored, given that they had offered a plan three years earlier. Two other proposals were introduced: one for an arts and design school, the other for an athletic career academy. CPS has expressed support for the plan for an arts-oriented school.
“Our objective was to make the decision that best meets our children’s needs, and this plan creates the opportunity for a unique, world-class high school on the South Side,” said CPS CEO Forrest Claypool in a statement.
CPS dragged its feet on considering the proposals, postponing an August decision deadline to September. That delay frustrated coalition activists and triggered the hunger strike, which began on Aug. 17 with 15 participants. Today, 13 remain on strike as the city has finally begun closed-door negotiations—the Rev. Jesse Jackson and several members of the Chicago Teachers Union are representing the interests of the strikers. Taylor-Ramann began eating again on Monday, the 30th day of the strike, after her 13-year-old daughter begged her to stop the strike for her health.
“When you see the game is rigged, you stop playing the game and do what you think is best to get the attention of the mayor and public school system,” said Taylor-Ramann of her participation in the hunger strike. “The only reason this is in negotiation is because the mayor is being publicly embarrassed nationwide.”
Jackson Taylor, who works in sustainable agriculture and horticulture and helped draft the plan for the new school, believes bringing leadership and green technology skills to the students would help prepare them for future employment in a way that a strictly arts and design education could not.
“The children in this community need a school that will further them to be leaders in their community, but also on a global level,” Jackson Taylor said. “Black and brown children don’t get those opportunities every day.”
At the intersection of gentrification and privatization, the fight for Dyett is a reminder of the contentious battle over charter schools taking place in cities across the country. Taylor-Ramann has watched as charter and contract schools have sprouted up around her while open-enrollment schools such as Dyett have been steadily shut down or drained of resources.
She described Bronzeville as a “food desert,” with no nearby police station. A 10-minute bus ride away is Hyde Park, the neighborhood the Obama family lived in before moving to the White House. Hyde Park has long been a hub of Chicago’s black middle class and is also home to one of the top schools in the nation, the University of Chicago. It has “friendly police, grocery and retail stores, and a trauma center,” Taylor-Ramann said. “I have access to nothing, and they have access to everything.”
As gentrification creeps in, big-box stores such as Walmart have arrived in Bronzeville, as well as a Jewel-Osco, offering more groceries and a drugstore. Home prices are rising as new faces move into nearby neighborhoods, gutting and renovating old brownstone buildings—though most of those arriving in Bronzeville are members of the black upper- and middle-class, WBEZ Chicago public radio reports.
In the face of this ongoing debate, Taylor Jackson believes a revitalized Dyett could be a model for other cities seeking to give their public schools a fresh start without privatizing.
“Dyett could be an example of what happens when community stakeholders come together and say, ‘This is what we want,’ ” Taylor Jackson told TakePart. “If only our elected officials would actually work with us, instead of the so-called leaders who do not have the children’s best interest in mind.”