On day 17 without food, two of the dozen Chicago activists on a hunger strike over a closed city high school traveled to Washington to ask Education Secretary Arne Duncan for help.
In a weakened state, and in the heavy air of a broiling summer day, Jitu Brown and April Stogner said Wednesday that they were turning to the federal government to “deliver justice” to students in Chicago but also to address similar school closings in African American communities around the country.
The Education Department is investigating complaints of civil rights violations stemming from closings of public schools in Chicago, Newark and New Orleans. Activists say such closings occur in disproportionately large numbers in poor minority neighborhoods and have a destabilizing effect on communities.
“I’m hungry but I’m not hungry for food,” said Stogner, 42, a grandmother who says she has lost about 15 pounds since she stopped eating Aug. 17. “I’m hungry for justice for my grandbabies. We live in a country where we are not valued as black and brown people. Let’s call a spade a spade. . . . We’re not begging, we’re demanding. This is our school. This is our community. Take your hands off.”
Stogner and Brown, 49, who says he has lost 32 pounds, were accompanied by the leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions. Duncan did not meet with the protesters Wednesday; they spoke with members of his staff.
The protesters are concerned about Walter H. Dyett High School, which Chicago Public Schools closed in June after years of poor performance and dwindling enrollment. Dyett was the only open-enrollment high school in its catchment area; nearby options include a selective high school, a contract school run by a private operator and a school outside Dyett’s attendance zone.
After community pushback about the closing, city officials said they would consider proposals from private organizations to operate the school for a fee.
Community organizers submitted their own plan, crafted with help from outside experts. They want to revive Dyett as an open-enrollment school with an emphasis on science, leadership and green technology. Jeannie Oakes, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and president of the American Educational Research Association, deemed the proposal “outstanding.”
But city officials have delayed decisions about the school’s fate. In a Chicago Public Schools statement Wednesday, officials said they are taking time to ensure they make the right decision. They said they have met with community members many times in the past year.
“As we consider these proposals, we remain mindful of the declining population in the area, which is losing students and already has 12 high schools within a 3-mile radius,” school officials said in a statement. “We also respect the community’s passion for Chicago’s children, and we will make the best possible decision to give all the children of the city a good education.”
Activists launched the hunger strike to force a resolution.
Dyett is in Bronzeville, a once-vibrant African American community that was home to a glittery roster of cultural leaders, including musician Louis Armstrong and author Richard Wright. It began to decay after the Great Depression and became notorious for the crime- and drug-ridden Ida B. Wells high-rise public housing complex, which the federal government razed in 2011.
Chicago Public Schools closed nearly 50 schools in 2013, affecting more than 12,000 students. One of the largest mass school closings in the country, it revealed deep racial fissures.
At a public meeting on the city’s budget Monday, hundreds of Dyett protesters confronted Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D). He agreed to meet privately with them.
“The mayor appreciates there are strong feelings about Dyett, and he understands there is a desire for a quick resolution about its future. However, what’s most important is the right decision,” said Emanuel spokesman Adam Collins. “CPS is engaged in a thorough review of Dyett, and they are close to a decision that will ensure a strong Bronzeville and a strong future for students.”