Last month, 12 parents and community members decided to go on a hunger strike to protest the closure of Dyett High School in Chicago. Dyett High School is slated to shut its doors by the 2015-16 school year but the hunger strikers advocate converting the high school into the Global Leadership and Green Technology High School instead. Now, in their 17th day of going without solid foods, they’re bringing the protest to Washington D.C.
The fight to save Dyett High School is far bigger than one school. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s education policies, particularly the decision to close almost 50 schools in 2013, have been called “racist” and “classist,” by the Chicago Teachers Union and parents are angry that the school closures have disproportionately been assigned to black neighborhoods. Emanuel has argued that closing the schools is better for students in the long run.
Attention to the protesters’ cause has picked up momentum. The movement has the support of Rev. Jesse Jackson, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García.
On Wednesday, Weingarten, Eskelsen Garcia and two of the hunger strikers, April Stogner and Jitu Brown, will deliver a letter to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, asking him to support keeping Dyett High School open. Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, John Jackson, president of the Schott Foundation, and Martin Blank, director of the Coalition for Community Schools, are also supporting the fight to convert the school into the Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.
Duncan was formerly the head of Chicago Public Schools. In 2002, he led the trend toward closing low-performing schools and replacing them, in the hope that the newer schools would succeed where the low-performing schools had failed. Now, even some of Duncan’s turnaround schools have been closed by CPS.
In the letter, the protesters ask Duncan to call Emmanuel in support of the school. The beginning of the letter reads:
We call on you to act swiftly to avert the further harm that can befall the twelve parents and community leaders from Bronzeville and allies from communities across Chicago who have been on a hunger strike for 17 days to call out the injustice suffered at the hands of CPS and the appointed Board of Education and to demand the adoption of the Global Leadership and Green Technology plan for Dyett. Call Mayor Emanuel today to help recognize the need to listen to the community – not politically-connected operatives. Stall tactics and patronage politics from CPS have driven everyday people to use their bodies to stand in the way of further injustice.
Protests are heating up in Chicago, where hundreds of people came to a public budget meeting at Malcolm X College for the chance to engage with Emanuel. Many of the people who made comments to Emanuel at the meeting were supporters of Dyett High School.
According to The Chicago Tribune, Frances Banks, a resident of Kenwood, said to Emanuel, “We’ve got two people who went in the hospital and one who just left. They’re hungry, and you don’t have enough guts or integrity to even see them … If any of them die, the blood will be on your hands!”
None of the hunger strikers are in the hospital right now, said J. Brian Malone, executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, which is a member of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett.
“The first striker was hospitalized on August 24 and released the following day. The second striker was hospitalized on August 26 and released the following day. Paramedics were called to attend to a third striker, but he refused hospitalization. The third striker to be hospitalized was on August 31. She was released early the following morning,” Malone said in a statement to ThinkProgress.
Emanuel met with the hunger strikers after the meeting, and said the staff would be working toward “a resolution,” in a few days, according to one of the hunger strikers, Jitu Brown. Emanuel has commented that there are alternatives for students who would have once attended Dyett High School, saying, “I would remind everybody what they’re trying to work through, within a 3-mile radius, there’s 10 high schools … Within about a mile of the school is King College Prep. So there’s a lot of high schools in that area, and how do you talk about another one when even some of the high schools that are within the 3-mile radius are not at capacity yet?”
Malone made a statement in response to Emanuel last week:
The schools Mayor Emanuel have pointed to as options for their children are outside the neighborhood and existing attendance boundaries, across gang lines, militarized, selective enrollment, and/or operated by a private contractor. The parents and community leaders have been explicitly clear in their intention to have a high school in their community that reflects their vision.
In the letter to Duncan, hunger strikers explained why alternative schools in the area are not a fit for Bronzeville residents. Strikers pointed out that it is a selective enrollment high school, with fewer than 10 percent of its students coming from Bronzeville.