Eve L. Ewing has written a moving and important article about the meaning of the fight for Dyett. It is far more important than the closing of one school in Chicago. It is about a community’s fight for survival, a fight to retain its identity and its history. New Orleans is a story of obliteration of the landmarks of the Black community. The hunger strike to save Dyett is a fight to preserve what belongs to the community.
She tells the history of Dyett High School, of its famous graduates. She explains what an open enrollment school is:
“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….
“The community of Bronzeville is no stranger to hardship or the racism that begets it: from the 1919 race riot to the high-density kitchenette buildings that packed in black residents in the 1930s and 1940s, where an entire family might have shared a room furnished with a hot plate in lieu of a real kitchen and use a bathroom in the hallway shared with other residents, to the struggles of families living in the public high-rise projects that emerged during the 1950s and 1960s—the Ida B. Wells Homes, Stateway Gardens, Robert Taylor Homes, and other names that came to strike terror in the hearts of white Chicagoans who never actually set foot south of the Loop. But, amidst all those challenges, school closings stand out as a particularly insidious and heart-wrenching form of hurt. By my count, CPS has closed 16 elementary schools in Bronzeville since 1998, bouncing students unceremoniously from one building to the next, with some students experiencing multiple closures over the short span of their elementary school education….
“Losing your school is hard for everyone involved. Really hard. When I found out that the school where I taught would be closing, I was visiting my father in Florida for spring break, and I locked myself in the bedroom and cried like a little kid. I started replaying life there in my head, over and over, like a sappy montage in a bad movie. Here’s me walking down the hallway for the first time, on my way to meet the principal for a job interview. Here’s Nathan, staying in my classroom after hours to write and illustrate a story about the Great Depression. Here’s Patricia standing proudly in front of the whole school and perfectly reciting her lines as Lady Capulet, despite her hearing impairment and speech impediment. Here’s the staff meeting where we find out that Nashae has cancer, and strategize about how we’re going to coordinate hospital visits, frozen dinners, and rides home for her sister. Here’s Omari connecting a circuit for the first time, and Sierra lovingly feeding Peanut, the gecko that was our class pet. Here is our school.
Here is my personal opinion, as someone who has gone through a school closing, my professional opinion as an educator, and my scholarly opinion as a researcher who is now writing a dissertation about Bronzeville’s shuttered schools. I will say it without reservation to whomever will listen, so listen: the decision to shuffle students from one building to another in the name of numbers is shameful. The decision to do so is based on the premise that children, teachers, and schools are indistinguishable widgets, to be distributed as efficiently as possible across the landscape. But the fact is that schools are ecosystems, each with its own history, culture, and intricately woven set of social relationships. Schools are community anchors. They not interchangeable, nor are they disposable. Schools are home.
Regular school closings, like I experienced, are hard. What’s happened at Dyett is arguably even harder. Since CPS opted for a slow “phase-out” over several years, students and teachers had to watch as the world around them was slowly dismantled, piece by piece. As teachers and students left, the school’s budget was thrown into disarray, so that the students who were left had to take online courses to get credits in Spanish and social studies, and even art, music, and physical education. One girl I interviewed told me that her teacher quit, for fear that if he stuck around until the school was totally closed, he wouldn’t be able to find a job the next year. He never told his students he was leaving—they walked into the classroom one day and found a note he had left for them. Like he was dumping them….
“A closed school is like a ghost. It lingers. It fills the space. In 2008, the year I began teaching and five years before my school was closed, it was already an occupant of a building where another school had lived and died before it—Douglas school, which was closed in 2004. Sometimes I would stand in the school auditorium when it was empty and try to imagine throngs of children and teachers I had never met, filling the seats for a talent show or an end-of-year award ceremony. I wondered about what their names were, and what music they liked, and what books they read.
Since my school closed, I guess you could say I’ve become something of a ghost hunter. On humid afternoons you can find me peering through the windows of closed schools around Bronzeville, trying to picture what used to be there. Inside the buildings you can sometimes catch glimpses of what’s left. Chairs, stacked high in layers of gleaming chrome. An American flag leaned against a dusty window. A haphazard pile of textbooks. I walk across empty playgrounds and trudge through unmown grass and I see all the ghosts. Sitting in a folding chair amid the Dyett hunger strikers and their supporters, I don’t have to see the ghosts alone. “I always think of double dutch,” one woman tells me. The whole line of girls playing double dutch, all along this way. And I used to enter through that door.”
I remember what Martin, one of the thirteen students who stayed at Dyett until its final year, told me recently. “Dyett is our fort.” Dyett is different than the other schools. Because Dyett might come back. And that, really, is what the hunger strike is about—the hope that what’s lost can return. Like maybe even in a city that never wanted us, and has found creative ways to show it, from the 1919 race riots to stopping and frisking people at a rate four times that of New York City, a city that broke our hearts so bad that the blues made us famous—maybe even here, black children and all of Chicago’s children can be guaranteed a high-quality education, whether or not they have high test scores or parents who enter them into a lottery. Maybe we can learn well and live well, right here in our own home.”
“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.”