Hunger strikers protest Chicago’s disinvestment in public education

Supporters of the Dyett 12 held a Labor Day solidarity gathering on the grounds of Walter Dyett High School where the 12 hunger strikers have spent their days since the beginning of the strike on August 17.

The hunger strikers are fighting to reopen Walter Dyett High School in a way that best serves the needs of the surrounding Bronzeville neighborhood, a predominately African-American neighborhood with a rich cultural history on Chicago’s South Side.

Dyett is one of the 50 public schools that Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education have closed since he took office in 2011.

The school closures, according to the Coalition to Revitalize Walter Dyett High School, whose members are participating in the hunger strike, are part of calculated disinvestment in public education by Mayor Emmanuel.

“We’ve been pushed to point of putting our bodies on the line,” said Jitu Brown, one of the hunger strikers in a YouTube video. “We say enough is a enough. We are tired of the destabilization of our community schools. We are tired of schools being sabotaged from the very beginning. It’s not the result of bad teaching. It’s not the result of disinterested parents and students. It’s the result of the disinvestment in Chicago schools.”

Brown is a leader of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, one of the  groups that belongs to the coalition.

The coalition has been working to improve education at Dyett for more than a decade and has had some success. In 2008, Dyett had the highest increase of graduating students attending post secondary schools and in 2009, the highest decrease in out-of-school suspensions and arrests.

But in 2012, the school board citing poor academic performance and declining enrollment, announced that Dyett would close in June 2015.

After parents, students, teachers, and community members, who had invested so much in Dyett’s turn around, protested the closure, the board decided that it would consider proposals for a new school at the Dyett location.

The coalition held a series of public meetings, focus groups, and other information gathering events that involved 3,000 Bronzeville residents.

Based on what they heard from community members, the coalition in April presented a proposal to the school board that called for the re-opening of the high school as the Walter H. Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.

The proposal’s vision statement calls for a new school rooted in the history Bronzeville, which for nearly a century has been a center for African American culture.

The proposal also envisioned a school that “prepare(s) all students for post-secondary education or meaningful career opportunities,” collaborates with the Bronzeville community, and provides “wrap-around support for every student,” which would include staying open until 8:00 P.M. to provide public space where students can study, receive tutoring, and take advantage of the social services that the school will provide.

The new school would also be an open enrollment campus.

Two other proposals were submitted, one would turn Dyett into an arts-based school operated by a charter school company and the other would make Dyett a magnet school for students wishing to pursue a career in athletics.

At a June public forum on the competing proposals, speakers from the community overwhelmingly supported the coalition’s proposal to turn Dyett into a global leadership and green technology based high school.

The school board was to hold a public hearing on the proposals on August 10 and then vote on the proposals on August 26, but the board canceled the August 10 meeting.

That’s when the coalition decided that it was time to take action and called for the hunger strike.

After the hunger strike began, some of the strikers traveled to Washington DC to seek support from the Obama administration. The hunger strikers were accompanied by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten when they met with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to discuss their proposal.

After the meeting, the strikers returned to Chicago to wait for a decision by Mayor Emmanuel and the school board.

Bill McCaffery, a school board spokesman, said the board would  carry out “a community-driven process to select a new high-quality school for the former Dyett site.”

A few days later without any community input, the board issued what it called a compromise for ending the strike–Dyett would be converted into an arts-based magnet school.

Noting that the board’s so-called compromise was not based any input from the community or for that matter, the public at large, the hunger strikers refused to call off the strike.

The coalition is urging people to continue supporting the Dyett 12 by participating in a tweet-in and by joining other supporters for a rally and silent march to President Obama’s house on September 8. Supporters plan to continue the marches and rallies until Dyett is reopened in a way that reflects the wishes of the community.

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