On a sunny morning on Chicago’s South Side, students and community members gathered to protest outside Walter H. Dyett High School, which is in the first year of a three-year
The object of their symbolic protest last month: a chained front door. Students said that being forced to enter through the back door violates their rights. Inside, Principal Charles Campbell said the front door is closed for safety reasons. Dyett was built to hold 1,200 students, and its student body had dwindled to 180.
The tension over Dyett’s unused door reflects disputes over school closings throughout the 400,000-student district. While the district contends closing schools will bring much-needed improvements, those actions are often felt in the affected communities as traumatic blows to students and families. Closings’ impact on teachers and students —and fears that closed schools would be replaced by charter schools—were also central issues last month in the bitter, seven-day Chicago teachers’ strike.
At Dyett, the students—some of whom had recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education claiming that closings, phaseouts, and turnarounds in Chicago disproportionately affected African-American and low-income students—hoped their demonstration would bring attention to their plight in a school they say was underfunded for years before the district decided to shut it down, and where the alternate option proposed by the district is another low-performing school.
No Better Options?
In the 2011-12 school year, Dyett had a 33.7 percent graduation rate, and daily attendance averaged only 62.5 percent, according to the district.
“Dyett was a troubled school. It was an underperforming neighborhood school,” said Roger McMillan, the principal there until January.
The question is: Why do students want to stay? In their federal complaint, students argue that “Dyett has served as a stable institution in our lives, something that means a lot to all of us, but especially to the 30 percent of us who are homeless.”
Chicago has closed more than 80 schools in the past decade. The district has framed the closings as a way to improve the quality of the underperforming schools and address declining enrollments.
In Bronzeville, the neighborhood surrounding Dyett, however, the closings are seen as the latest decision to negatively affect students, especially those who are low-performing and disadvantaged. Mr. McMillan said Dyett, which became a high school in 1999, had never received resources comparable to those of a nearby selective-enrollment public school.
As Dyett is phased out, its students are slated to go to Phillips High School, a district-designated “turnaround school” run by the nonprofit Academy for Urban School Leadership. Phillips High is also on probation for low academic standing.
That doesn’t bode well for the students, if their experience lines up with research from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. It found that most students who moved to low-performing schools after theirs closed fared no better afterwards on state tests.
Phillips is also nearly two miles away, which community members said is too far to be a safe commute for their children.
Losing an Anchor
Some protesters believe the district and the city have targeted Bronzeville. The complaint alleges that “the board has concentrated the closings in so-called gentrifying areas—with the effect of moving out poor African-American families for the benefit of high-income, racially mixed buyers.”
“It’s the sabotage of our neighborhood schools,” said Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which helped organize the student protest. Public-housing projects in the neighborhood have been dismantled, and 15 nearby schools have been closed in the past decade, according to the complaint.
Marielle Sainvilus, a district spokeswoman, called such claims “patently untrue.” She said most closings had taken place in areas with large population declines. On just the city’s south and west sides, she said, “we have lost over 200,000 African-American families.”
Ms. Sainvilus also said the district held more than 60 hearings on proposed school actions, including closings, last year.
The upside of working with Dyett’s current small population now, Principal Campbell said, is that it allows him to give students “targeted, laser-like instruction.”
He’s been working to foster a more positive environment, he added, but the back door for now will remain locked.
Dyett junior Osha Dancy said that despite the locked door and despite the challenges, he still wanted to attend Dyett. “It definitely wouldn’t have been better if they just closed the school,” he said. “It wouldn’t give us the time to try to save it.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2012 edition of Education Week as Phaseout Plan Pains Chicago Neighborhood