The Broader Meaning of Chicago’s Dyett Hunger Strike

The website of the New Yorker magazine just published a fascinating piece by Eve Ewing, written to mark the importance of the recent 34-day hunger strike in Chicago that pressured Rahm Emanuel’s administration to preserve Dyett High School in that city’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

According to a report by WBEZ Chicago, though the hunger strikers did not achieve all of their demands, they did secure a promise that the new Dyett high school will, “have a neighborhood boundary, meaning all children in the attendance-area could attend without having to first meet minimum test-score requirements or go through a lottery (nearly all Chicago high schools opened in the past decade have had citywide boundaries and require students to apply; no one is guaranteed admission).”  “(T)he roots of the fight began years ago, when CPS shook up the local schools in the Bronzeville-Kenwood-Washington Park area by turning the high school, King, into a test-in school. Dyett became the default attendance-area high school for the area…. The school board voted in 2012 to phase Dyett out; the last class graduated in June with 13 students.”

In her New Yorker piece, Ewing sets Chicago Public Schools’ closure of Dyett High School in the context of the history and impact of Chicago’s public housing—a history of public policy reinforcing neighborhood segregation in Chicago, where poverty remains concentrated decades after African Americans came north in the Great Migration to escape just such conditions.  In the 1950s, “When C.H.A. (Chicago Housing Authority) officials appeared before the city council with proposals for new housing construction, white aldermen routinely slashed at the lists of prospective locations until those projects slated for black communities were all that remained.  What resulted was the construction of five more (in addition to the original Ida B. Wells project) high-density housing projects, bringing the total in Bronzeville to eight thousand two hundred and thirty-three units…. In 1970, the families who lived in the Robert Taylor Homes… averaged six people each—a total of six thousand two hundred and fifty adults and twenty thousand four hundred and forty children.  Children outnumbered adults by more than three to one…”

“Ida B. Wells, the Robert Taylor Homes, and other Bronzeville high-rise projects have all been torn down as part of the C.H.A.’s ‘Plan for Transformation,’ which Mayor Richard M. Daley launched in 1999… The agency declared that residents would have the right to return to the newly constructed mixed-income housing that would replace the high-rises… In 2005. Venkatesh and Isil Celimli wrote that seventy-five percent of C.H.A. residents surveyed stated a preference for returning to their old neighborhoods, but less than twenty percent would be able to do so.”  The neighborhoods south of Chicago’s Loop have gentrified. Developers of mixed income housing failed to include enough apartments whose rent would be subsidized for low-income families. Once again, public policy, which was supposedly designed to relieve overcrowding for poor Black families, served the needs of wealthier citizens who wield power in the private housing marketplace that shapes our cities.  The poorest residents of Bronzeville, forced out by the clearing of the towering housing projects, were merely displaced into other communities where poverty is concentrated.

The history of urban renewal and the development of public housing is filled with policies that were intended to improve conditions for the poorest and most segregated families in America’s big cities, but which instead had the effect of exacerbating racial segregation and concentrated poverty.  The Dyett hunger strikers, while they didn’t achieve all of their local demands, succeeded in exposing educational policies that have purported to improve America’s lowest scoring schools but have instead had the effect of condemning the schools with the label of “failure,” condemning their teachers as unable to raise test scores, imposing federally mandatory turnarounds like “school closure,” and encouraging families who can afford it to move to places with better ratings.  Some states have even been awarding letter grades for the schools being rated, encouraging wealthier families to move to the school districts rated “A” instead of staying in communities with grades of “D” or “F”—driving families with money to wealthy exurbs and away from cities and inner-ring suburbs.

Education policy over the past 15 years has been driven, top-down, by the federal government. The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act tied a mass of punitive policy to a school’s incapacity to raise aggregate student standardized test scores for every subgroup of children; the schools that haven’t been able to raise scores are the ones experiencing school closures like the one at Dyett.  While a half century of research has demonstrated that test scores are closely tied to family wealth or poverty, No Child Left Behind and the Obama punitive policies like Race to the Top have ignored the impacts of poverty—homelessness, joblessness, food insecurity, high rates of parental incarceration, high rates of family mobility, lack of adequate medical and dental care, chronic absence, and so on—on the children in the schools with the lowest scores.

The Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon recently discussed these issues in an interview published on the inequality website, Too Much, Segregation’s Insidious New Look.  “We have a market-driven housing world.  With inequality in family income growing, families can afford to spend increasingly different amounts on housing.  They end up sorting themselves more into neighborhoods that have housing at the price they can afford.  In metro areas where income inequality has increased the most, we see income segregation increase the most… There is, however, some interesting new research from Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California.  She seems to be finding that increasing income segregation among families with children is driving most of the increase in income segregation.  Childless households—whether single people or elderly people or couples who don’t have kids—aren’t becoming that much more segregated from each other…. It’s really families with children that are becoming more economically segregated, and this suggests that concerns about where children are going to grow up and what schools they’ll go to—and maybe who they’re going to play with—are interacting with income inequality to drive the patterns of income segregation.”

Reardon explores the implications for education: “Increasing economic segregation means that kids from high-income families live with kids from other high-income families and go to schools that have more resources.  They go on to do better in school and have a better chance at attending a good college.  We have evidence over the last few decades that the achievement gap—the test score gap—between students from high-and low-income families is widening, and maybe that’s related to these processes.”

There has been a huge effort by policy makers in both political parties to sell the public on the idea that standardized testing and subsequent punishments for schools that cannot quickly raise scores are the best way to hold schools accountable for their seeming inability to serve our poorest children, many of them children of color.  The Dyett hunger strikers accomplished something very important by exposing that policies like school closure only further punish neighborhoods that have historically been underserved—places where school funding has never been adjusted to address the needs of a mass of very poor children, communities where the tax base has collapsed but state funding has never been equalized to address the needs of communities whose fiscal capacity has been reduced.

The Dyett hunger strikers forced the general public to pay attention.  The hunger strike, covered widely in the press, was mounted by parents and community members who understand personally just how today’s education policy is being experienced by the children and parents who live in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities.

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One thought on “The Broader Meaning of Chicago’s Dyett Hunger Strike

  1. thanks, Jan, for highlighting the Dyett hunger strike.
    The same story about public education and housing segregation in Chicago can be told of Cleveland. And Dan Kerr’s book, Derelict Paradise -Homelessness and Urban Development in Cleveland, Ohio, reviews a longer trajectory regarding housing and city elites (w relevance to education), covering the years 1877 to 2007. Dan is a Cleveland Hts. High School graduate and this book is an expansion of his dissertation done at Case. It is the definitive critical history of Cleveland, using oral history and similar archives (of mayors and others) to unpack the underside of city government that created and reinforced the racism and anti-unionism and worker-hatred that still is practiced, though now with occasional more subtlety. (They don’t appear to build armories for city militia to shoot workers striking in the streets.) The bubble of Cleveland redevelopment (many cities in the US are experiencing similar bubbles) is being hailed as an urban renaissance, after billions of dollars of investment downtown. The hyperbole of city elites about this bubble is remarkable, considering the small return on the billion dollar investment in foregone taxes, which Roldo Bartimole has ably documented.
    thank you, Jan, for also ably documenting the destructive forces in public education leadership among city elites, when there are viable alternatives that are consistently rejected: adequate funding of human needs, especially for those in poverty. Privatization of public education has become the substitute for a comprehensive plan to address the needs of those with the least resources.
    One can only weep at such a situation.
    And continue to be faithful to an alternative vision and the daily work to practice it personally, advocating and encouraging others. Your blog does all that well!

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