Unequal Access to Educational Opportunity Is the Story of Today’s America

A highlight of the Network for Public Education’s recent national conference was the keynote address from Jitu Brown, a gifted and dedicated Chicago community organizer and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance.  His remarks made me think about the meaning of the last two decades of corporate school reform and the conditions today in his city and here where I live in greater Cleveland, Ohio.  It is a sad story.

Brown reflected on his childhood experience at a West Side Chicago elementary school, a place where he remembers being exposed to a wide range of information and experience including the study of a foreign language. He wondered, “Why did we have good neighborhood schools when I went to school but our kids don’t have them anymore? For children in poor neighborhoods, their education is not better.”

Brown described how No Child Left Behind’s basic drilling and test prep in the two subjects for which NCLB demands testing—math and language arts—eat up up more and more of the school day. We can consult Harvard University expert on testing, Daniel Koretz, for the details about why the testing regime has been particularly hard on children in schools where poverty is concentrated: “Inappropriate test preparation… is more severe in some places than in others. Teachers of high-achieving students have less reason to indulge in bad preparation for high-stakes tests because the majority of their students will score adequately without it—in particular, above the ‘proficient’ cut score that counts for accountability purposes. So one would expect that test preparation would be a more severe problem in schools serving high concentrations of disadvantaged students, and it is.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 116-117)

Of course, a narrowed curriculum is only one factor in today’s inequity.  Derick W. Black and Axton Crolley explain: “(A) 2018 report revealed, school districts enrolling ‘the most students of color receive about $1,800 or 13% less per student’ than districts serving the fewest students of color… Most school funding gaps have a simple explanation: Public school budgets rely heavily on local property taxes. Communities with low property values can tax themselves at much higher rates than others but still fail to generate anywhere near the same level of resources as other communities.  In fact, in 46 of 50 states, local school funding schemes drive more resources to middle-income students than poor students.”

Again and again in his recent keynote address, Jitu Brown described the consequences of Chicago’s experiment with corporate accountability-based school reform.  Chicago is a city still coping with the effect of the closure of 50 neighborhood schools in June of 2013—part of the collateral damage of the Renaissance 2010 charter school expansion—a portfolio school reform program administered by Arne Duncan to open charter schools and close neighborhood schools deemed “failing,” as measured by standardized test scores. On top of the charter expansion, Chicago instituted student-based-budgeting, which has trapped a number of Chicago public schools in a downward spiral as students experiment with charter schools and as enrollment diminishes, both of which spawn staffing and program cuts and put the school on a path toward closure.

As Jitu Brown reflected on his inspiring elementary school experience a long time ago, I thought about a moving recent article by Carolyn Cooper, a long time resident of Cleveland, Ohio’s East Glenville neighborhood: “I received a stellar education in elementary, junior high, and high school from the… Cleveland Public School system… All of the schools I attended were within walking distance, or only a few miles from my home. And at Iowa-Maple Elementary School, a K-6 school at the time, I was able to join the French Club and study abroad for months in both Paris and Lyon, France… Flash forward to this present day… To fight the closure of both Iowa-Maple and Collinwood High School, a few alumni attended a school facilities meeting held in October 2019 at Glenville High School… Despite our best efforts, Collinwood remained open but Iowa-Maple still closed down… Several generations of my family, as well as the families of other people who lived on my street, were alumni there.  I felt it should have remained open because it was a 5-Star school, offering a variety of programs including gifted and advanced courses, special education, preschool offerings, and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).”

In his keynote address last week, Jitu Brown explained: “Justice and opportunity depend on the institutions to which children have access.” Brown’s words brought to my mind another part of Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood less than a mile from Iowa-Maple Elementary School. If you drive along Lakeview Road between Superior and St. Clair Avenues, you see a neighborhood with older homes of a size comfortable for families and scattered newer rental housing built about twenty years ago with support from tax credits. You also see many empty lots where houses were abandoned and later demolished in the years following the 2008 foreclosure crisis. Separated by several blocks, you pass two large weedy tracts of land which were once the sites of two different public elementary schools—abandoned by the school district and boarded up for years before they were demolished. You pass by a convenience store surrounded by cracked asphalt and gravel.  Finally you pass a dilapidated, abandoned nursing home which for several years housed the Virtual Schoolhouse, a charter school that advertised on the back of Regional Transit Authority buses until it shut down in 2018.

My children went to school in Cleveland Heights, only a couple of miles from Glenville. Cleveland Heights-University Heights is a mixed income, racially integrated, majority African American, inner-ring suburban school district. Our children can walk to neighborhood public schools that are a great source of community pride. Our community is not wealthy, but we have managed to pass our school levies to support our children with strong academics. We recently passed a bond issue to update and repair our old high school, where my children had the opportunity to play in a symphony orchestra, and play sports in addition to the excellent academic program.

Jitu Brown helped organize and lead the 2015 Dyett Hunger Strike, which forced the Chicago Public Schools to reopen a shuttered South Side Chicago high school. Brown does not believe that charter schools and vouchers are the way to increase opportunity for children in places like Chicago’s South and West Sides and Cleveland’s Glenville and Collinwood neighborhoods.  He explains: “When you go to a middle-class white community you don’t see charter schools…. You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

In the powerful final essay in the new book, Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Bill Ayers, a retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, agrees with Jitu Brown about what ought to be the promise of public education for every child in America:

“Let’s move forward guided by an unshakable first principle: Public education is a human right and a basic community responsibility… Every child has the right to a free, high-quality education. A decent, generously staffed school facility must be in easy reach for every family… What the most privileged parents have for their public school children right now—small class sizes, fully trained and well compensated teachers, physics and chemistry labs, sports teams, physical education and athletic fields and gymnasiums, after-school and summer programs, generous arts programs that include music, theater, and fine arts—is the baseline for what we want for all children.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 314-315) (emphasis in the original)

New Book Includes Wonderful Retrospective Essay by the Late Mike Rose

I just received my pre-ordered copy of a fine new collection of essays from Teachers College Press.  In Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, editors David Berliner and Carl Hermanns pull together reflections by 29 writers, who, as the editors declare: “create a vivid and complex portrait of public education in these United States.”

It seems especially appropriate at the end of 2021 to consider one of the essays included in this new book—probably Mike Rose’s final essay—“Reflections on the Public School and the Social Fabric.” Rose, the wonderful writer and UCLA professor of education, died unexpectedly in August.

Rose considers the many possible lenses through which a public can consider and evaluate its public schools: “Public schools are governmental and legal institutions and therefore originate in legislation and foundational documents… All institutions are created for a reason, have a purpose, are goal driven… Equally important as the content of curriculum are the underlying institutional assumptions about ability, knowledge, and the social order… Public schools are physical structures.  Each has an address, sits on a parcel of land with geographical coordinates… By virtue of its location in a community, the school is embedded in the social and economic dynamics of that community… The school is a multidimensional social system rich in human interaction… With the increasing application of technocratic frameworks to social and institutional life, it becomes feasible to view schools as quantifiable systems, represented by numbers, tallies, metrics. Some school phenomena lend themselves to counting, though counting alone won’t capture their meaning… And schools can be thought of as part of the social fabric of a community, serving civic and social needs: providing venues for public meetings and political debate, polls, festivities, and during crises shelters, distribution hubs, sites of comfort.”

“Each of the frameworks reveals certain political, economic, or sociological-organizational aspects of the rise of comprehensive schooling while downplaying or missing others,” explains Rose. “It might not be possible to consider all of these perspectives when making major policy decisions about a school, but involving multiple perspectives should be the goal.”

In this retrospective essay, Rose reflects on a journey that resulted in his landmark book on public education, Possible Lives.  For several years Rose visited public school classrooms across the United States, classrooms recommended to him by national and local experts as sites of wonderful teaching. He begins his new essay in rural eastern Kentucky remembering an evening visit to a bar at the end of a day observing the high school social studies classroom of Bud Reynolds.”This testimony to the importance of the public school opens in the AmVets Club bar in Martin, Kentucky, population 550, circa 1990.  I am here as a guest of Bud Reynolds, a celebrated social studies teacher at nearby Wheelwright High School, about whom I would be writing for a book called Possible Lives (published by Houghton Mifflin in 1995) documenting good public school classrooms.” Bud introduces Rose to two friends, Tim Allen and Bobby Sherman, both of whom work for the one remaining railroad that runs through Martin. “While Bud and Tim play a video game, I end up talking with Bobby, a conversation that reveals the place of school in both memory and the practice of day-to-day living…  What… stands out to me is the role several of Bobby’s high school teachers play in his life.  An English teacher changed his reading habits, and in a way, I assume, that contributes to his current political and social views… I also can’t help but wonder about the degree to which the intellectual challenging of his chemistry teacher—the cognitive gave and take, the pleasure in it, his esteem for his teacher’s intellectual ability—the degree to which this extended experience plays into Sherman’s own sense of self as a thinker, and as proof of the presence of ‘damned intelligent people’ in Kentucky’s Eastern Coal Field.”

Rose’s essay now takes his journey to a different kind of public school setting: “Let us move now from a town of 550 to Chicago, a city with the third largest school district in the nation, and to the story of a school and the community it represents… Like Martin, KY, Chicago was part of my itinerary for Possible Lives.  I visited six public schools in Chicago, one of which was Dyett Middle School, named after Walter Henri Dyett, a legendary music teacher in the Bronzeville community of Chicago’s South Side… From its inception in 1975, Dyett was not only a valuable resource for neighborhood children, but also represented a rich local history of Black artistic and educational achievement.” At Dyett Middle School, Rose listens as an English teacher engages 6th grade students in an open discussion about the books on which they will be writing reports and about questions and concerns they have about the teacher’s expectations for the reports they will be writing.  As classes change, Rose stops in the hallway to talk with several students: “‘Students learn here,’ one boy tells me. ‘They teach you how to speak and write,’ a girl adds. ‘You feel at home here,’ says another boy. ‘They don’t make fun of you if you mess up.'”

Now Rose updates more than two decades of news about Dyett: “Twenty years later, Dyett was one of 54 ‘failed’ schools targeted for closure by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the CEO of the district.  These schools were ‘underenrolled and underperforming.'” Dyett had been transformed into a high school, and, “By 2000, interwoven with large-scale transformations in the economy, urban revitalization projects, and changing demographics and gentrification, a new wave of school reforms had some urban districts attempting to reorganize their schools into a ‘portfolio’ of choices. Some schools were converted to selective admission schools or to magnet schools… while other schools were defined as general admission schools.  Add to this mix the growing number of charter schools, and one result is the diminishment of general admission community schools like Dyett, as their enrollment is drained away.”

Except that the school meant too much too the community: “But the community around Dyett wouldn’t allow it, mounting a protracted, multipronged campaign that led, finally to a hunger strike that made national news… The children I saw during my visit to Dyett would have been in their late twenties by the time the order to close the school was issued—their parents in their forties or fifties. We have, then, a sizeable number of people in the community who associate Dyett with, as the 6th grader put it, feeling at home, with being valued and guided, and with learning about themselves, each other, and the world.”

As he pursues his purpose—reflecting on public schools and the social fabric—Rose rejects one of the lenses he named earlier through which a society can observe and evaluate its public schools: “With the increasing application of technocratic frameworks to social and institutional life, it becomes feasible to view schools as quantifiable systems, represented by numbers, tallies, metrics.”  This is, of course, the rubric of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and all the rest of the two-decade technocratic experiment with corporate style public school accountability.

“As a rule, public policy decisions in our technocratic age tend to focus on the structural bureaucratic and quantitative dimensions of the institutions or phenomena in question—that which can be formalized, graphed, measured.  The other perspectives we’ve been considering, those dealing with economic, political, and social history and with the place of the school in a community’s social fabric, tend to be given short shrift or are ignored entirely… Creating or expanding opportunity for underserved populations is… an equity goal given for contemporary school reform policy. As we saw in the Dyett/Chicago example, opportunity was put into practice by creating choice options—which, paradoxically, involved closing existing options. In technocratic frameworks, opportunity easily becomes an abstraction.  But opportunity is a lived experience, grounded in a time and place, and therefore, there can be situation specific constraints on opportunity.”

Rose concludes: “The journey I took across the country visiting schools for the writing of Possible Lives enhanced my understanding of the complex position the public school holds in the social fabric. Journey… provides a literary device to sequence my visits to different schools, a narrative throughline, a travelogue of schooling.  Journey also has psychological significance. A journey is an odyssey of discovery…. I would learn a huge amount about the United States and the schools in it—but metaphorically of inner worlds as well….  And journey becomes method… it… has the potential to open one to experience, to learn, to grasp…. You talk to a guy in a bar who lives his decades-old education through conversation, an education he received in a school founded three-quarters of a century ago when the region’s economy was emerging… If this kind of journey attunes you to the particulars of place and its people, it also provides the longer view. As you visit schools, you see similarities across difference and, eventually, interconnectedness and pattern.  There is a grand idea in all this—and you sense it—a vast infrastructure of public schooling.”

Stunning New Book Contextualizes Tragedy of 2013 School Closures in Chicago’s Hyper-Segregated History

Eve Ewing’s new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, explores the blindness, deafness, and heartlessness of technocratic, “portfolio school reform”* as it played out in 50 school closings in Chicago at the end of the school year in 2013. After months of hearings, the Chicago Public Schools didn’t even send formal letters to the teachers, parents and students in the schools finally chosen for closure.  People learned which schools had finally been shut down when the list was announced on television.

Eve Ewing, a professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and a former teacher in one of the closed schools, brings her training as a sociologist to explore this question: “But why do people care about these failing schools?” (p. 13)  In four separate chapters, Ewing examines the question from different perspectives: (1) the meaning for the community of the closure of Dyett High School and the hunger strike that reopened the school; (2) the history of segregation in Chicago as part of the Great Migration, followed by the intensification of segregation in thousands of public housing units built and later demolished in the Bronzeville neighborhood; (3) the narratives of community members, teachers, parents and students about the meaning of their now-closed schools in contrast to the narrative of the portfolio school planners at Chicago Public Schools; and (4) the mourning that follows when important community institutions are destroyed.

We hear an English teacher describing the now-closed school where she had taught: “I never considered us as a failing school or failing teachers or failing students. I felt like pretty much everyone in that building was working really hard for those kids…. Trying to push them forward as far as they could go.” (p. 135)

And we hear Rayven Patrick, an eighth grader speaking about the importance of Mayo elementary school at the public hearing which preceded the school’s closure: “Most of my family have went to Mayo. My grandma attended. My mother, my aunt. I came from a big family. The Patricks are known in Mayo. Like, we have been going there for so long. Over the years I have watched lots of students graduate, and they were able to come back to their teachers and tell them how high school has been going. Most of them are in college now, and I see them come to the few teachers that are left at Mayo and tell them of their experience of college and high school. This year I will graduate. And most of the students at Mayo… They’re family to me.  Little sisters and little brothers. I walk through the hallway, and every kid knows who I am. I’m able to speak to them, and I honestly, I wanna be able to watch them graduate.” (pp. 108-109)

Ewing also shares the justification for the 50 school closures by Barbara Byrd-Bennett, then Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed school district CEO: “But for too long, children in certain parts of our city have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed in the classroom because they are trapped in underutilized schools. These underutilized schools are also under-resourced.” (p. 4)

Throughout the book, teachers, students, parents, and grandparents point out the irony that Byrd-Bennett has criticized their now-closed school for being under-resourced.  She is herself the person with enough power to have changed the funding formula that left some schools with ever-diminishing resources. Community members also complain again and again that at the same time neighborhood public schools are being shut down, the school district has been encouraging rapid growth in the number of charter schools.

But Ewing, the sociologist, also examines the justification read at the school closure hearing by Brittany Meadows, the Chicago Public Schools Portfolio Planner.  Here is just a short section of Meadows’s explanation: “To understand the enrollment efficiency range of a facility, Chicago Public Schools utilizes its space utilization standards which are located in your binder at Tab 14. The enrollment efficiency range is plus or minus 20% of the facility’s ideal enrollment.  For elementary school buildings, the ideal enrollment is defined as the number of allotted homerooms multiplied by 30…  As such, the enrollment efficiency range of the Mayo facility is tween 552 and 828 students.  As I stated, the enrollment of Mayo as of the 20th day of attendance for the 2012-2013 school year is 408.  This number is below the enrollment efficiency range, and thus the school is underutilized.” (p. 100)

Ewing responds to Meadows’ presentation: “Meadows closes with the language of logic: ‘This number is below the enrollment efficiency range’….  Meadows presents this data using an ‘if…then’ statement, explaining the calculation of the metrics without explaining the validity of the constructs involved.  In this manner the school closure proposal appears natural and inevitable.  Well, of course, since this number is below the enrollment efficiency rate, this is what happens next…  The logic implied in Meadows’s statement reflects a certain view of reality: the idea that the most important aspects of the educational enterprise can easily be captured in no-nonsense, non-debatable numeric facts.  These numbers are taken to be unbiased and a truer representation of what happens in a school building than more qualitative measures (teacher observations, for instance), which are seen as overly subjective or unreliable. These quantifiable facts are also seen as a necessity—perhaps an imperfect measure, but a needed force for decision making….” (p. 101) (Emphasis in the original.)

Not only Ewing’s chapter about the Bronzeville community’s grief for its closed schools but also the entire book portrays the enormity of the historic mistake of technocratic, top-down school reform in Chicago. You must read Ghosts in the Schoolyard to hear the sadness of the children and their families and the despair of the teachers.  At the end of her story, Ewing wonders: “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… What is the history that has brought us to this moment  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (pp. 158-159)

*The think tank that promotes portfolio school reform is the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform is a “problem solving framework” that operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.”

Jitu Brown Explains the Reasons for New Anti-Charter School Resolution from National NAACP

In October, the national NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, passed a strong resolution demanding a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools and the end of school privatization.  The Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) and the Movement for Black Lives have supported the NAACP in demanding that the rapid expansion of charters be stopped in black and brown communities until:

  1. “Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools;
  2. “Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system;
  3. “Charter schools cease expelling students that the public schools have a duty to educate; and
  4. “(Charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

The national NAACP has begun holding regional hearings about the resolution, hearings where controversy has surfaced over a very basic difference in philosophy. While many people support charter schools as an “escape” for able students from what are struggling and underfunded public schools in poor areas, many residents of those very communities have come to realize that the charters themselves are intensifying problems for the public schools that must continue to serve many of the children with the greatest needs.  Because charter schools have been around now for twenty years, there is documentation for these concerns.

Jitu Brown is the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), which Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post describes as “a national network of grass roots community organizations in 24 cities.  J4J, with more than 52,000 members across the United States, is committed to winning community-driven school improvement and educational equity…. J4J started in 2013, as parent and student organizations who were impacted by school privatization began to organize national mobilizations to protest policies such as school closings and to push for community-driven school improvement.”

Last Tuesday, Strauss published a statement from Jitu Brown about the NAACP’s resolution for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools and about his own organization’s support for the NAACP’s resolution: “To criticize the call by the NAACP, Movement for Black Lives and the Journey for Justice Alliance for a moratorium on charter expansion and for the end of school privatization is to be tone deaf to the voices of the people directly impacted—and it is to ignore growing proof that corporate reform has failed to bring equitable educational opportunities to all children… (P)rivatization supporters speak about the virtues of charters while failing to address how they have increased segregation, sometimes cherry-picked students, taken funding away from underfunded traditional systems, and operated in secrecy.”

Writing about the Journey for Justice Alliance, Brown explains: “We applaud charters that are truly centers of innovation and believe we should learn from them.  Unfortunately, far too many are, in the words of esteemed scholar Charles Payne from the University of Chicago: ‘mediocre interventions that are only accepted because of the race of the children served.'”

What are the realities in the communities that the Journey for Justice Alliance has organized?  “Most charter operators,” writes Brown, “can find a way to get rid of students they don’t want, yet most of these schools don’t perform any better—at least when it comes to student standardized test scores—than traditional public schools. Charters, as a component of the school privatization movement, have contributed to the national decline in the number of black teachers… Charters, which overwhelmingly serve black and Latino children, have increased segregation.”

Most significantly, Brown, a community organizer from Chicago, describes the way charter school expansion has been part of the destruction and abandonment of traditional public schools.  Brown helped organize and lead the Dyett Hunger Strike in the fall of 2015, that eventually pressured the Chicago Public Schools to keep a public high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.  He tells the story of Dyett High School: “In 2008, Dyett had the largest increase among high schools of students going to college in Chicago and the largest decrease in arrests and suspensions. In 2011, it won the ESPN RISE UP Award, outperforming hundreds of schools across the country and winning a $4 million renovation to its athletic facilities. The next year, Chicago Public Schools voted to phase out Dyett and open new charter schools. The district starved the school of resources, eliminated effective programs and encouraged students to transfer.  By 2015, the enrollment plummeted to 13 students… After I and 11 other parents waged a 34-day hunger strike in 2015 to save Dyett, it opened as a neighborhood school with a full freshman class and a waiting list.”

In a profound depiction of a privilege that is taken for granted by middle class families across America, here are Marwa Eltagouri and Juan Perez Jr., reporters for the Chicago Tribune,  describing the reopening of Dyett High School in September, 2016: “Families living nearby once again have an open-enrollment high school in their neighborhood. Parents don’t have to worry about their children taking buses or trains to far-off schools. And they don’t have to send their kids to privately run charter schools if they want to take honors or Advanced Placement classes. A first day of school at Dyett wasn’t supposed to have happened this fall. But after a yearslong protest by community leaders that included a 34-day hunger strike, Chicago Public Schools reversed its decision to close Dyett at the end of the 2014-15 school year.”

In September’s report, the Tribune quoted Jitu Brown: “When you go to a middle-class white community, you don’t see charter schools, contract schools or alternative schools.  You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

In the statement printed by Valerie Strauss last week, Brown names the real problem at the heart of America’s greatest educational challenge: “The biggest failure of the American education system is deep, entrenched inequity. In many places, black and brown children are not valued as much as their white counterparts. We want the choice of world class, sustainable neighborhood schools to anchor our communities, just as white brothers and sisters enjoy.”

School Closure: A Tragic Turnaround Strategy

Chicago’s Dyett High School, which had been phased out by the school district beginning in 2012, will be re-opened as an open-enrollment, arts-focused high school for 550 students.  The school was slated for closure following the graduation of 13 students last June at the end of the phase-out process. A dozen protesters, led by Jitu Brown of Chicago’s Kenwood Oakland Community Association, are responsible for the re-opening of Dyett as a neighborhood high school.  Since August 17, the protesters have conducted a hunger strike to protest the school’s closure.

As the Chicago Public Schools capitulated by agreeing to re-open the school, Jitu Brown commented: “We are happy the school is opening as a neighborhood CPS-run school.  All is not lost.  But what we want is what the community demanded.”  Earlier this year, when the school district had issued a request for proposals (RFP), citizens of the neighborhood had submitted a proposal for a school with a focus on green energy and global leadership, with support from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Education and the Chicago Botanical Gardens, which Chicago Catalyst reports “had agreed to partner with Dyett under the proposal submitted by activists.”

CPS has declared that the school will have an arts, not a science, focus, in honor of the school’s namesake, Walter Henri Dyett, a DuSable High School music teacher known for educating a number of Chicago’s great jazz musicians.  Although the school district described its agreement to re-open Dyett as a high school with an arts focus as “a compromise” (intended to end the hunger strike), the protesters continue to declare that their hunger strike is about something much larger—the autocratic, top-down management of a school district that has persistently disdained the Chicago neighborhood communities the public schools are said to serve. While Dyett High School will re-open to serve the neighborhood, the District’s leaders ignored the wishes the community has been expressing through the hunger strike and that they framed several months ago in a formal proposal.

School closure is one of the four approved, top-down “turnaround” plans prescribed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act for schools unable to raise test scores after several years. The implication of the “turnaround” language, of course, implies that somehow closure will inspire rebirth, but too often school closure has meant not only the death of the school but also the demise of the neighborhood for which the school was the institutional anchor.

School closure was a favorite plan of New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellor, Joel Klein, writes Jelani Cobb in an extraordinary New Yorker profile of New York’s Jamaica High School, closed last June.  Over the years Bloomberg and Klein closed 74 schools.  In 2010, Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emmanuel and his public schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett closed 50 schools.  Adrian Fenty, Washington, D.C.’s mayor, and his superintendent Michelle Rhee closed two dozen schools—one of the factors that is said to have precipitated his defeat in a subsequent election.  Quoting the phraseology used by Joel Klein to justify New York City’s school closures and the co-location of a number of small high schools into the buildings that had housed the comprehensive high schools, Cobb explains: “The real problem was that the schools had ‘started getting many kids who were low-performing and entering high school a couple of years behind.’  The solution was to create ‘a much more intimate and personalized setting for them’—a phrase at odds with the disruption and the discord that often greet the end of a long-established community institution.”

Carol Burris, a former high school principal in New York City and now the director of the Network for Public Education, recently reflected on school closures in the context of the Dyett hunger strike, quoting Jitu Brown: “We’re tired of our children and our communities being demonized and being blamed for being underserved.”  Burris describes the demographics at a number of New York City schools closed in 2011: “A 2011 report by the New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO) recognized that the demographics of the 14 schools slated for closure served a disproportionate number of homeless students, black students, special education students, low income students, and students who were overage for their grade.  Ironically, one third of the schools on the list had replaced another school that had been closed before it—repeating a cycle of disruption for neighborhood kids.”

The problem with the No Child Left Behind Act is that it set out to punish the teachers and schools thought not to be working hard enough, but it has failed to address the concentrated family poverty that is frequently found in the neighborhoods whose schools are persistently said to be “failing.”  Jelani Cobb’s piercing analysis of the demise of New York’s storied Jamaica High School—and the accompanying critique of today’s school reform strategy, pursued with zeal by both the Bush and Obama administrations and the big-city mayors who run their school districts through appointed school boards, is worth reading and re-reading. Cobb understands how top-down management undercuts democracy and how today’s technocratic school policies destroy the very communities that are supposed to be turned around through strategies like closing neighborhood high schools and firing teachers and principals.

Here is Cobb’s analysis:  “Like ‘busing’ and ‘integration,’ the language of today’s reformers often serves as a euphemism for poverty mitigation, the implicit goal that American education has fitfully attempted to achieve since Brown v. Board of Education.  Both busing and school closure recognize the educational obstacles that concentrated poverty creates.  But busing recognized a combination of unjust history and policy as complicit in educational failure.  In the ideology of school closure, though. the lines of responsibility—of blame, really—run inward  It’s not society that has failed, in this perspective.  It’s the schools.  In 1954, Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s arguments about the pernicious effects of racism on black children implicated white society.  Sixty years later, arguments that black students associated studiousness with ‘acting white’ were seen not as evidence of the negative effects of internalized racism but as indicators of pathological self-defeat among African Americans.  The onus shifted, and public policy followed.  The current language of educational reform emphasizes racial ‘achievement gaps’ and ‘underperforming schools’ but also tends to approach education as if history had never happened.  Integration was a flawed strategy, but it recognized the ties between racial history and educational outcomes.”