Chicago residents have entered the second week of their hunger strike protesting the closure of Dyett High School, in the predominately African-American Bronzeville neighborhood located on the South Side of Chicago.
Parents and community members are calling on the Chicago Board of Education to keep Dyett – the only open-enrollment, neighborhood school in its area – open and accept a community plan to revitalize the school with a focus on science and green technology. The Chicago Public Schools indicated that it would consider proposals from private organizations to run the school, but community organizers have rejected privatization in favor of a publicly-operated, district-run, neighborhood school. The protesters began their hunger strike on August 17, demanding that the city respond to their plan.
The Chicago School Board decided in 2012, the same year the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike, to close Dyett High School by 2015, claiming that it was an under-performing school. At least 49 school closures were announced shortly thereafter, mostly in African-American neighborhoods. Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union, called the closures “racist.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel defended the school closures as being beneficial for all students, but there is no guarantee that closing and replacing under-performing schools will lead to educational benefits. A 2013 report of school closures in Chicago between the 2001-2002 school year and the 2011-2012 school year, showed that only 15 percent of the replacement schools were rated as high performing by the Chicago Public Schools, but 32 percent were given the lowest rating. Of the more than 100 schools that were closed or completely re-staffed, almost all were neighborhood schools in African-American neighborhoods.
“We’re tired of our children and our communities being demonized and being blamed for being underserved,” said hunger striker Jitu Brown.
Protesters are also wary of closing neighborhood schools to replace them with admissions-based public schools or privately-run charter schools. Protester Monique Smith, told the Washington Post, “This is really about the privatization of education, it’s about having sustainable community schools in every neighborhood. This is a much larger struggle.”
Three federal civil rights complaints were filed last year with the Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Justice asserting that African-American students from Newark, Chicago, and New Orleans have been disproportionately impacted by school closures, negatively impacting African-American communities. Even worse, advocates claim that publicly-run neighborhood schools have largely been replaced by privately-operated charter schools, which have not produced large scale academic benefits for African-American students.
Against this backdrop, activists around the country have shown support for the Dyett hunger strikers. Hundreds have fasted in solidarity, sharing their support through the hashtag #FightForDyett. At a rally last week, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, joined Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery at Dyett to call on the Chicago Public Schools to accept the community-developed plan for the school.
At least two of the hunger strikers have had to seek medical assistance so far, but the protest continues. “We are undeterred, even though we are weaker physically,” said Smith. “Our mental determination gets stronger with each day.”
Media Resources: Reuters 8/28/15, 8/26/15; Illinois Federation of Teachers Press Release 8/26/15; Think Progress 8/26/15; Washington Post 8/26/15, 5/13/14; Chicago WBEZ 1/16/13; Twitter