Chicago Activists Starving Themselves to Save Neighborhood School

In 2012, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced one of the largest waves of school closures in American history, with the majority of schools located in poor and African American communities. 

Dyett High School in Chicago was told it was chosen to be shut down due to poor performance and declining enrollments. Many in the community believed the school was unfairly targeted and filed a civil rights complaint. One teacher, Michelle Gunderson, notes that the school was never properly provided with resources; the school library had seven books, and there were no science labs. In response, the Chicago Board of Education decided to accept proposals for re-opening the school for the 2016-'17 school year. 

The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett proposed making the school into an institution focused on the environment, economy and green technology, while the Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy proposed an art-focused institution. A third group wanted to make the school into a sports-focused academy. Chicago Public Schools pushed back its hearings on what will happen to the school to mid-September, canceling the August 10 meeting that was previously set.

Many in the community were worried that CPS would reject a proposal for an open-enrollment high school, and the lack of communication from the city led many to believe authorities have no intention of re-opening the school for the community.

“The question I have for the board,” asked Jitu Brown, an activist with the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization at a CPS meeting over the summer, “is why on one side of town, the parents show interest and the response is immediate, and we have to get arrested, we have to do sit-ins, we have to...put ourselves at risk? Just to have our voices heard?” 

Frustrated with the lack of response from CPS to their proposals, a group of activists affiliated with the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett decided they would escalate their tactics to get the city to hear their plan to re-open their beloved neighborhood school. #FightForDyett was born when a group of a dozen Chicago activists – many of them parents who were concerned about the school their own kids would be attending — started a hunger strike, declaring they would not eat anything until the city agreed to honor their plan for re-opening the school focused on their detailed plan for a green technology institution.

After five days, other activists pledged to join their strike. First came the Reverend Jesse Jackson. “Look at these parents. We often talk of the alternative, so much violence, so many school dropouts, absence of parents. And here you have high-quality commitment by parents to educate their children,” said Jackson of the hunger strike. “They’re continuously building private schools in our neighborhoods and charter schools are closing public schools, so that mothers whose children should walk to school at Dyett have to go 16 miles one way to school. Please, Board of Education, please listen to these parents. Don’t turn your back on the legitimate cry of this community to educate their children in a safe, neighborhood school presented in a high-quality plan. Why the obstacles?” 

That's a question a lot of folks around the country have started to ask. Moved by the hunger strikers in Chicago, many others around the country showed their support. Statements supporting the hunger strikers from teachers associations and education organizations in locations as wide-ranging as New Orleans and Puerto Rico rolled in. Teachers in Wisconsin sent a photo in solidarity.

On Wednesday, August 26, the strikers caught the attention of Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers. She joined the strikers to applaud their action.

After 10 days of the strike, two of the strikers were in need of medical attention: Jitu Brown and Irene Robinson, who is a grandmother of 14. Shortly after being hospitalized, where she still refused to eat, Robinson was back on the ground, joining demonstrations over Dyett. “I'll be here until I die,” she vowed.

The fight for Dyett has drawn citywide and national support likely due to trends that are bigger than one school. Neighborhood schools in Chicago now “enroll only one-fourth of the students living in their attendance areas.” Years of disinvesting from neighborhood schools and promoting school choice has led to a situation where the very concept is in question in much of the country. In the hunger strikers in Chicago, we see the natural response by a community that is watching their neighborhood schools vanish in favor of a model that views education as a commodity and children as a business.


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