The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why hunger strikers are risking their health to save a Chicago public high school

Placeholder while article actions load

A dozen people are nearing the end of their second week of a hunger strike aimed not only at keeping alive Walter H. Dyett High School High School in Bronzeville on the South Side of Chicago, but also at underscoring the damaging effects of modern school reform. As one of the hunger strikers, 32-year-old  Monique Smith, told my Post colleague Lyndsey Layton in this story:

“This is really about the privatization of education, it’s about having sustainable community schools in every neighborhood. This is a much larger struggle.”

The Dyett hunger strike — begun Aug. 17 by education activists, public school parents and community and faith leaders — has been years in the making. In 2012, authorities with Chicago Public Schools, who have closed scores of public schools in recent years, announced they were going to shutter Dyett in June 2015, blaming academic achievement and enrollment (but not giving the school adequate resources to improve). New students were not accepted, and so the last 13 seniors graduated this past June.

The Chicago Board of Education has yet to make a decision about what to do with the building. Community members have been telling the board for years what they want: for Dyett to stay open as a publicly operated school, the last open-enrollment school in Bronzeville. Eve L. Ewing, on, explained why that is important in a post titled, “Why the Fight for Dyett is Bigger Than One Chicago School Closing”:

If you read any of the articles or blog posts about the hunger strike to save Dyett, or check the #saveDyett hashtag on Twitter, you’ll hear that Dyett is “the last open-enrollment school in Bronzeville.” If, like the majority of Americans, you grew up in a place where there is no such thing as “deciding” where you attend high school, it might be unclear what “open enrollment” means.
In Chicago, as in many large urban districts across the country, over the course of the last 15 years the concept of “school choice” as a popular bipartisan idea has entrenched itself to an impressive degree. Whereas once upon a time, cities and counties were divided up on a map and students simply attended the school closest to where they lived (what’s known technically as a “catchment school,” or in big cities, a “neighborhood school”), the era of choice has more or less changed all of that in places like Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, and other large districts that serve primarily children of color. Where once the only way to exercise some kind of “school choice” was to attend private school, children can now stay in the public school district and apply to a magnet school, enter the lottery for a charter school, apply to a special vocational or career academy, or try to test into an academically elite “selective enrollment” school serving only a small sliver of top-performing students. (In New York these are known as “specialized schools,” in Boston you may know them as “exam schools.”) While such elite schools are often publicly touted as gems of the district, Chicago’s selective enrollment schools only serve about 12% of the city’s public high school students. Charter schools, meanwhile, are more likely than traditional public schools to expel or suspend students with disabilities, and two of the city’s most high-profile charter high schools—Noble Street and Urban Prep—are also two of the most likely to lose students between freshman year and graduation.
Unlike a charter school, where students have to enter and win a lottery to enroll, or a selective enrollment school, where students have to be deemed members of the academic top tier to enroll, an open-enrollment neighborhood high school is open to any student who lives nearby. That means that everyone is guaranteed a spot.
And it’s not just the “last open enrollment school” part that makes Dyett important—there’s also the Bronzeville part. The historic Bronzeville community on Chicago’s South Side was one of the most important arrival sites for African-Americans moving north during the Great Migration, and has been home to a bevy of intellectual, artistic, and political luminaries, from Ida B. Wells to Richard Wright, from Gwendolyn Brooks to Louis Armstrong. “Captain” Walter Henri Dyett, for whom the school is named, was an influential black music teacher who served CPS from the 1930s until the 1960s, during which time his students included Nat King Cole, Bo Diddley, Vonn Freeman, Dinah Washington, and John Gilmore (who played saxophone with Sun Ra).

A local organization called the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School started more than five years ago to persuade the Board of Education to transform Dyett into something called The Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology Community High School that would partner with local civic institutions and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Education. The plan was rejected, but activists kept trying to get Chicago authorities to listen to them. They held rallies and protests and some were arrested for their efforts.

Last year, district officials said they would entertain proposals from private community organizations to keep Dyett open and operate it, a step that angered community members.  Jitu Brown, the education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago and one of the hunger strikers, was quoted by blogger Jennifer Berkshire (a.k.a. Edushyster) as saying:

“Why can’t we have public schools? Why do low-income minority students need to have their schools run by private contractors? We want this school to anchor the community for the next 75 years. We’re not interested in a short-term contract that can be broken.”

Frustrated community activists decided this summer to stage a hunger strike to draw public attention to the failure of the Board of Education to make a decision about Dyett that would benefit the community. On Aug. 17, a dozen people stopped eating solid food and began ingesting only water and fortified drinks. One hunger striker, a grandmother, was hospitalized, and health professionals in Chicago have publicly called on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to take action to resolve the situation to end the hunger strike.

A Web site called reported that 17 local doctors and nurses signed a letter that was delivered on Thursday to Emanuel’s office urging him to take action. It quoted Linda Rae Murray, a retired former chief medical officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health, as calling the situation “an emergency.” The story said:

Murray and Erin Raether, a registered nurse who has tended to the strikers, said their health was “fragile” and in danger of “complications.” Murray called the situation “very dangerous,” and even deadly.
“This has become a really serious issue,” Raether said. “We believe the mayor needs to respond to a health emergency.”

The Board of Education met this past Wednesday and heard a number of speakers urge them to agree to transform Dyett into a green technology school. The board decided not to decide, at least not until September, when another hearing was scheduled.

On Thursday, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, Janice Jackson, the district’s new chief academic officer, suggested that Dyett may not, after all, be saved as a school, and that there are other under-enrolled high schools that would-be Dyett students can attend, something with which the protesters take issue.

The next day, on Friday,  most of the hunger strikers protested at Chicago City Hall, and the Chicago Teachers Union issued a statement from its vice president, Jesse Sharkey, saying:

“The fight for Dyett has been very real for people in Bronzeville for years, but now, it’s become a matter of life or death. The fact that the Dyett 12 has resorted to starving themselves for the future of public education in their community shows just how little their voice has been heard, and not just by the mayor, but by all of the so-called elected officials that should be representing them.”
“We know who runs education in this city and who controls the schools, and changing this arbitrary September hearing date could be one of the easiest decisions for city hall to make, and one that could be done with a wave of the mayor’s hand. The district needs to hold hearings on Dyett immediately and let the community’s voice make a difference, for a change. We are asking them to preserve lives and to hold their hearing as early as Monday. That’s an easy decision. What should be hard for the mayor, and for Frank Clark, and for the Board of Ed to do is to watch people starve in their fight for an open-enrollment school in their neighborhood.”

This, then, is what school reform has come to in Chicago. Privately operated charter schools open, publicly run schools close, and now, a dozen people who have done everything they could think of for years to keep open a public school are starving themselves to get the Board of Education to take them seriously. What they want is a public school in which area students who want to attend are allowed to attend. In Chicago, that appears to be too much to ask.