Chicago education activists are ramping up their fight to save Walter H. Dyett High School from closing at the end of the 2014-2015 school year.
At a news conference at City Hall on Monday, a coalition of parents, students and South Side community leaders blasted Chicago Ald. Will Burns (4th), whose ward includes Dyett, for not supporting their proposal to keep Dyett open beyond 2015 and transition it into a "global leadership and green technology" open-enrollment, neighborhood high school. Toting signs reading "Stop disinvesting in black children," members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School called the alderman's lack of support for their community-driven, academic plan "disrespectful" to the families who live near Dyett and accused Burns of "ignoring" the needs of neighborhood children.
The Chicago Board of Education voted to phaseout Dyett, located in the city's historic Bronzeville community, back in 2012 due to poor academic performance. Dyett is slated to close completely in 2015 after its last senior class graduates.
For several months now, the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School has urged Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and school district officials to accept the group's blueprint to offer a global leadership and green technology curriculum at Dyett. The coalition's plan, developed over a two-year period, also includes programs involving agricultural sciences and cultural awareness. Blacks in Green, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Metropolitan Tourism Council, Teachers for Social Justice as well as parents and students from Dyett and its feeder schools helped produce the school proposal.
The coalition has collected some 700 petition signatures in support of the community-proposed high school, which is also backed by the DuSable Museum of African American History, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, the Washington Park Advisory Council, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the University of Illinois at Chicago's (UIC) College of Education.
School district officials, however, have reiterated that there are currently no plans to keep Dyett open beyond 2015.
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Barbara "Byrd-Bennett and CPS board members continue to receive proposals about the future of Dyett High School and are always interested to hear feedback from the community on how we can collaborate to provide quality education options to our students," school district spokesman Joel Hood said in a statement to Progress Illinois. "CPS has met with [the] Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, including two weeks ago when Board President David Vitale listened to their proposal for Dyett High School. There are currently no plans to change Dyett’s scheduled closure, which will go in effect after next school year."
But Jitu Brown with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), one of the community groups behind the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School, questioned why the school district "would not support a community activated to improve its school."
"We're not trying to be insiders," he said. "We're not asking for a contract. All we want is quality schools in our neighborhood."
The coalition called on Burns to hold a public hearing about the future of Dyette within 30 days. They also want city and school officials to arrange public meetings on the topic. Here is more on the group's demands from coalition members Jeanette Taylor, Irvin C. Mollison Elementary's Local School Council (LSC) president, and Joy Clandenning, a 4th Ward resident who sits on the LSC at Kenwood Academy High School:
In a statement to Progress Illinois, mayoral spokeswoman Rachel Kruer said representatives from Emanuel's office "have met with this group and are scheduling a future meeting to discuss providing quality education options in the North Kenwood and Oakland communities."
Meanwhile, the coalition had a meeting with Burns last week, during which the alderman said he does not support their proposal for a global leadership and green technology high school at Dyett, according to the group. At the meeting, coalition leaders said Burns told them there are other public high schools on the city's South Side — the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences and the Chicago Vocational Career Academy — offering programs similar to what the coalition has suggested.
"Neither one of those schools are in [North] Kenwood, Oakland [or] Bronzeville," stressed Taylor. "If you take away the one neighborhood high school that we have, students in Kenwood Oakland and Bronzeville have nothing. That's just something (Burns) is throwing at us to say that he does not support our plan."
The coalition's proposal also outlines academic programs that are different than what is offered at the two aforementioned schools, Brown added.
"It is very unique," he said of the group's blueprint. "It is very different. There is not a school like it in the city, and we have the capacity to make it happen."
In an interview with Progress Illinois, Burns said he has carefully combed through the coalition's plan and takes the issue about keeping Dyett open seriously. However, Burns, who opposed the Chicago Board of Education's decision to phaseout and close Dyett, does not support the group's proposal because he believes its members have not gathered adequate input from the broader community and other local organizations, such as the Bronzeville Community Action Council. That being said, Burns said he shares the coalition's vision to turn Dyett into a high-quality, open-enrollment neighborhood high school that is neither a charter school nor an alternative school. He said he has met with Chicago Board of Education members and "key education leaders" in the city to "push that agenda."
"My approach is to first of all make sure we keep Dyett open," Burns said. "I'm open (to) what that school would look like."
Brown said rumors are swirling that Burns wants the non-profit Little Black Pearl, which operates a contract school in the North Kenwood-Oakland area called Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy, to come to Dyett, located at 555 E. 51st St. Brown said Burns told him that he is "open to Little Black Pearl being in the school." Brown noted that the alderman has not made a public announcement about such a proposal. Coalition organizers maintain that Little Black Pearl runs an underperforming contract school and its student graduation rate is lower than Dyett's.
"We don't want somebody contracting to give us a neighborhood school because that contract can be broken," Brown added.
Regarding the talk about Little Black Pearl possibly operating at Dyett, Burns said he has "not publicly or definitively" stated that keeping Dyett open should involve bringing the non-profit to Dyett. But the South Side alderman is open to "whatever approach that we can come up with that will create an open enrollment" high school in the area.
The activists argue that the North Kenwood and Oakland communities are in dire need of a high-quality high school because nearby Kenwood Academy High School is overcrowded and Wendell Phillips Academy High School, which is an Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL) turnaround school, has "plummeting" enrollment and a lower college acceptance rate than Dyett's.
Hood said many former Dyett students currently attend Phillips, which is a traditional neighborhood high school that has the school district's best Level 1 academic rating. As of the 2012-2013 school year, the college enrollment rate among Phillps graduates was 53.6 percent, according to CPS' most recent college enrollment data for the school. Additionally, 91 percent of Phillips' class of 2014 has been accepted into college, district data shows.
Enrollment at the high school, which Brown said was at about 1,300 before AUSL took over in 2010, has dropped over recent years.
"Now, there is about 700 [students]," Brown added. "What we're saying is it's not a Level 1 school. What they've done is manufactured a Level 1 school ... When you look at the AUSL turnarounds, enrollment plummets because they push so many of the young people out."
Data provided by the school district shows enrollment has increased at Phillips from 593 in the fall of 2011 to 670 in the fall of 2013. The school district maintains that AUSL turnaround schools sometimes see an initial drop in enrollment during the first year of a turnaround due to the rigorous curriculum and a more focused learning environment. Enrollment at AUSL schools typically increases in following years, according to CPS.
Meanwhile, the education activists argued that Dyett has seen too few resources from CPS over recent years. Specifically, they pointed out that the school lacks sufficient course offerings. Dyett does not have advanced placement classes. Students meet their physical education requirement by taking an online course. Art courses are also taken online.
Clandenning, the Kenwood Academy LSC member, said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Burns "are accountable for public dollars and public buildings," adding that organizers will keep pressure on the city officials to support the coalition's idea to revitalize Dyett.
"This is (the children's) public school," Clandenning stressed. "No public official has the right to take it away from them."