Parents’ hunger strike reveals loopholes in Chicago education reforms


It’s a drastic, painful and potentially fatal tactic associated with third world political movements drawing attention to brutal regimes, or history lessons from legendary protest leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Cesar Chavez.

Yet activists on Chicago’s South Side are entering their second month of hunger strike, launched to bring attention to the plight of a legendary but downtrodden neighborhood school that is due to close next year.

Activists say they went on strike because city leaders, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, have repeatedly turn a deaf ear to their complaints about the fate of Walter H. Dyett High School in the predominantly black historic district of Bronzeville. Emanuel’s administration, they say, has also ignored their demand to have a say in what happens to their community’s school, including their suggestions for unwanted plans to turn Dyett into a music school. and art and instead create an academy for children who want to have a career in the future. – facing the field of high technology and green energy.

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“The community said they wanted Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School,” Jitu Brown, one of the hunger strikers, told WTTW-TV from Chicago Wednesday, the 31st day of the demonstration. “It’s really frustrating that taxpayers have to go this far when you realize you have no voice left. “

As the ‘Fight for Dyett’ movement has taken desperate measures for what it sees as a desperate time, the standoff between protesters and the powers that be is a microcosm of similar conflicts unfolding nationwide. .

In the United States, a combination of cutting education budgets, gentrification of poor neighborhoods, and a surge in charter schools has put underachieving minority schools like Dyett on the chopping block and sparked offspring. accusations of educational racism.

Dyett’s hunger strikers. (Photo: Twitter)

Several studies have shown that when urban school districts from Washington, DC to Oakland, Calif., Had to balance the books by closing low-enrollment and under-performing schools, black communities are the hardest hit. But city and school officials say the enrollment numbers don’t lie: In Chicago, Dyett High’s 2015 class had just 15 students.

But analysts say families displaced by gentrification, along with the lure of charter schools, are artificially driving down enrollment, undermining schools like Dyett, named after an esteemed African-American music teacher whose students understood. jazz legends Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington.

“People have reached a level of desperation,” said Richard Gray, director of organization and community engagement at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. The decision to shut down Dyett without their input, Gray said, was seen by Bronzeville community leaders “as an attack on their schools and teachers” and proof that Rahm Emanuel “disdains their community.”

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Gentrification is “definitely” a stalemate in Chicago, according to Gray. For several decades, “massive real estate speculation” forced displacement of a significant portion of residents, he said. To make affordable communities more attractive, the city’s education administrators have bypassed plans to revive traditional public schools and joined the parade to state-funded charter schools.

Officials “build these charter schools and shop [magnet] schools for affluent whites, ”Gray said. “These things are piling up.”

Gary Orfield, professor of education and urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles, and co-director of the school Civil Rights Project, in agreement with Gray’s assessment of the situation in Dyett. Former Chicago resident Orfield said the communication breakdown reflected “negative racial change” in the city, and he would not be surprised if protesters in other cities reflected the hunger strike strategy.

“Hopefully sanity sets in, that they negotiate a settlement and these people don’t die,” Orfield said. “None of these things have been handled well.”

Ultimately, however, he said, the hunger strike could prove to be an opportunity for Emanuel, who, as a congressman and chief of staff to President Barack Obama, reportedly advised his staff to never let a crisis go to waste.

“This is the kind of crisis that could make a difference,” Orfield said.


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