Hunger strike ends; #FightForDyett lives on

Education around the country, particularly in large urban districts like Chicago, is administered with great inequity, and politicians and their appointed boards of “education” get away with this inequity by using bumper sticker-length slogans to mask the truth, Jitu Brown tells the Network for Public Education in a recorded interview with Robin Hiller.

Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood is home to BB King and the first doctor to perform a successful open heart surgery.

Mr Brown and about a dozen hunger strikers in Chicago ended a hunger strike on the 34th day, Saturday, September 19. The strike was over the reopening of Dyett High School as an open-enrollment neighborhood public school run by the Chicago Public Schools district, not by a charter company or contractor.

The hunger strikers won that battle, but because the city had indicated officials would just let hunger strikers, about a dozen parents and grandparents, “rot” and require hospitalization, without hearing their demands, the strike ended. The fight for equity and human rights in education, however, continues and has been, perhaps, stimulated and advanced by the actions of a brave few in Chicago.

In an interview with NPE, Mr Brown spoke about Lincoln Elementary School, which is located in a more affluent part of the city, predominantly White. The district had just cut the ribbon on a $21 million annex for the school, although parents from Lincoln, at a public board meeting, “asked the district to give that $21 million to the South Side and the West Side,” he said.

“We pay taxes, and we should have the same return on our investment as the families that live in Lincoln Park have,” he said. “And there’s no acrimony toward those children having those resources—they should. Those places deserve it, but again, so do ours.

“And what has flown under the radar—and I think what we haven’t had the courage to talk about—is the hatred that is exhibited toward African-American people through policy and practice. When we’ve bled, our blood bleeds red just like everyone else’s. We’ve fought in every war; we’ve sacrificed our blood for … this country as much as anyone else, if not more.”

Mr Brown feels that a proposal his group, Journey For Justice, had worked on should have been the winning proposal for how Dyett would be run. But although the district intends to use certain elements of his green technology and global leadership as “staples in the curriculum,” the district currently plans to open the school as an arts-themed high school.

This discussion requires more space than I have in a blog post, but that discussion is ongoing in Chicago. I have maintained that, now that the school is open-enrollment, the community can continue to shape it into what they want it to be. If they want an emphasis on green technology and global leadership, the school should be allowed to develop in that direction.

Ordinarily I can’t support any group of parents telling a school district how to run a school, either in terms of what curriculum to provide, what tests to administer, what classes students should take, and so on. Those decisions are, of right, in the domain of public school officials.

But Chicago is different from the ordinary case for many reasons. First, the board is not answerable to the public, because board members are appointed, not elected. This has proved efficient for large urban districts like Chicago, but it takes democracy out of the picture entirely. Board members are more beholden to what one person—in this case, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appoints them—wants than to what children served by the schools need.

Second, Chicago Public Schools has, over the several years during which Dyett was “phased out,” drastically reduced the quality of education received by students who attended the school by cutting classes and programs, by failing to provide adequate resources, and by, for the most part, making it undesirable for students to attend the high school.

This policy of funding schools in Black neighborhoods in the district differently from schools in White neighborhoods has been a pattern, and it is shameful—enough that we are forced to look for solutions that don’t involve decision-makers who have a track record of inequity running the schools. If that means parents should run the schools or dictate what programs are offered, that may be one solution that could work at Dyett and at other similarly-situated schools in the US.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.