Dyett High School Opens: 2015 Hunger Strike Redefines Meaning of ‘School Closure’

The Chicago Tribune published a major story covering the first day of school on the Tuesday after Labor Day at Dyett High School in Chicago. Why was Dyett’s first day of school this year so important?  Here is reporter Juan Perez Jr.: “Freshmen walking through the doors of Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts on the South Side experienced feelings similar to those of new high school students everywhere, a mix of first-day jitters and bashful excitement. But for the Washington Park and Bronzeville neighborhoods, the first day of classes Tuesday at Dyett had deeper significance. 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.”

Perez continues: “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 2014-2015 school year. ‘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,’ said Jitu Brown, a community activist who took part in the hunger strike.”

Only a year ago, led by community organizer Jitu Brown, hunger strikers were sitting in Washington Park protesting not only the scheduled closing of Dyett High School but also a federal education policy that has defined school closure as one of the four prescribed ways to turn around a low scoring school.  Chicago had closed a record 50 schools at the end of 2013—justifying the plan as a way to turn around so-called “failing” schools and describing uneven enrollment patterns.

Beyond saving a neighborhood high school for Chicago’s Bronzeville Neighborhood, the Dyett Hunger Strike significantly changed the national conversation about test-and-punish school policy. Hunger strikers redefined the meaning of “school closure.” While No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top had defined school closure as what was called “a school-improvement turnaround strategy,” the Dyett hunger strikers denounced school closure as an example of disparate treatment of the residents of Black and Brown neighborhoods across America’s poorest cities. Jitu Brown has been able to leverage the meaning of the hunger strike because Brown also leads the national Journey4Justice Alliance, that has been protesting the recent widespread use of school closures.

Rachel Cohen, writing for The American Prospect, describes the impact of school closures on neighborhoods: “While black students were 40 percent of Chicago’s school district population in 2013, they made up 88 percent of those affected by the closures. In Philadelphia, black students made up 58 percent of the district, but 81 percent of those affected by closures.” Cohen continues: “(T)hree years later, Chicago residents are still reeling from the devastating closures—a policy decision that has not only failed to bring about notable academic gains, but has also destabilized communities, crippled small businesses, and weakened local property values. With the city struggling to sell or repurpose most of the closed schools, dozens of large buildings remain vacant, becoming targets of crime and vandalism throughout poor neighborhoods.” Cohen adds: “In Chicago… 87.5 percent of students affected by closures did not move to significantly higher-performing schools.”

In 2014, on the 6oth anniversary of Brown V. Board of Education, community groups in New Orleans, Chicago, and Newark filed federal civil rights complaints under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protesting widespread school closures in their school districts.  Cohen explains: “They alleged that school closures in their cities have had a racially discriminatory impact on children and communities of color.  The groups received legal assistance from the Advancement Project, a civil-rights organiziation. Jadine Johnson, an attorney with the Advancement Project, says they chose to file Title VI complaints because they wanted to raise disparate impact claims. ‘When districts are making these decisions they don’t say, ‘we’ll close black and Latino schools.’ They’ll say ‘we’ll close schools that are under-enrolled or under-achieving.’  she says.  ‘But those decisions can still have discriminatory effects on black and brown students.’ ”

Just this summer, in an important piece published in The Hill, Judith Brown Dianis, Executive Director of Advancement Project, and Jitu Brown, describe the three complaints filed in 2014.  One of the ways students in America’s cities are being deprived of basic opportunities is “through systematic and targeted school closures. We know this because we’ve been organizing against school closures, which are occurring in predominantly African American, Latino and low-income communities. Across the country, these communities have watched as their schools, teachers, friendships and shared history are eliminated. Many students are pushed out of one school only to be forced to attend another school that is further away, with less experienced teachers, similar resource inequities and instability.”

The Dyett Hunger Strike a year ago and the filing of civil rights complaints has made a difference. In their report for The Hill, Judith Brown Dianis and Jitu Brown explain that last December, after a two year investigation, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reached an agreement with the Newark Public Schools acknowledging the disproportionate impact of school closures on the city’s African American students and confirming that the school closures “did not appear to afford affected students any measurable, improved educational outcomes.” The agreement requires the Newark school district to investigate whether and how students from closed schools were affected academically and how their safe passage to school, and their access to special services (for disabled students) were impacted when schools were closed. Further, the district must evaluate and report on how the location of school facilities and the pupil capacity of existing buildings were affected and how the current location and availability of facilities affects Newark students’ overall access to education.