Activists Say No to Another ‘School Desert’ in Chicago

A new coalition wants to hold on to one last neighborhood high school in Chicago's historically black Bronzeville neighborhood.

By Julianne Hing Dec 04, 2013

After dozens of Chicago Public Schools slated for closure were shuttered this fall, education activists in the city’s South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville decided to focus on holding on to one last high school in the neighborhood: Dyett High. Late last month organizers with the new Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School launched a campaign to persuade Chicago Public Schools to listen to the community’s plans to hold on to the neighborhood public school.

Activists have been using the phrase "school deserts," borrowing from the food justice lingo of "food deserts" which refer to the dearth of healthy food options in low-income communities to describe what happens when school closures sweep across neighborhoods.

The campaign has taken on a new significance since Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced last week that the district will not close any more schools this coming year, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. This year’s halt comes with a proposed five-year moratorium on school closures, just months after the district finished closing 50 district schools. 

The moratorium wouldn’t save Dyett, and without it, there would be no public high school in the area. "If Dyett leaves, we wouldn’t have no neighborhood high school where students can go," says Diamond McCullough, a 17-year-old senior at the school who’s joined the campaign. According to Jitu Brown, a member of the coalition and an education organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, the closest institution would be Phillips Academy, a charter school some 2 1/2 miles away.

Chicago Public School officials designated the school for phase-out–an education world euphemism for being marked for a slow death–in February of last year. While it won’t officially close until 2015, Dyett is not receiving new students and the already under-resourced school is bleeding programs and district support. 

The District’s Rationale

In voting to shutter the school, Chicago school officials cited Dyett’s chronically low standardized test scores and graduation rates, and the expensive underutilization of the school building. Indeed, the district’s graduation rate average is 65.4 percent, but at Dyett this year, just 38 percent of seniors graduated. But, say neighborhood education advocates, the district has starved Dyett of resources undercutting the school’s ability to improve its test scores. What’s more, 100 percent of the students at Dyett are designated low-income, according to the district, and a quarter of the students have special needs. Yet in the last five years, the school’s well-loved AVID college-prep program and its remedial Read 180 program were axed. Today, the only honors courses at the school are administered online, says McCullough. Even physical education is taught from inside the school’s computer lab via online courses.

Instead of closing the school, coalition members, which include parents, students, school council representatives, education activists and academics, want to reorganize it as Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. They’re working with education professors at the University of Illinois-Chicago to craft a plan to present to CPS in January. Among their allies are the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which has spoken out about Chicago’s rash of school closures. Part of the CTU’s interest is that school closures directly impact their membership. But, says Norine Gutekanst, coordinator of CTU’s organizing department, neighborhood public schools are more likely to employ aides, teachers and staff from the neighborhoods they serve than the charters popping up all over Chicago’s South Side. 

Black and Brown Schools Are Most Likely to Close

School closures are not evenly distributed across the city. A map of Chicago’s recent school closures is a rough proxy for marking the city’s poor black and Latino neighborhoods. "What we have seen is the closures overwhelmingly take place in communities that are black communities and Latino communities, and we feel the school closings represent a disinvestment in the community that just accelerates problems," CTU’s Gutekanst says. "We know they would not do this in more middle class communities and communities that are majority white."

When the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 53 schools this spring, it was the largest round of school closings at one time, according to WBEZ. Black students were, by far, most likely to go to schools marked for closure. They make up 43 percent of the city’s school district enrollment, but were 88 percent of the students affected by school closings. Latino students are 44 percent of the district and were 10 percent of those affected by the latest round. Meanwhile white students, who make up 7 percent of Chicago Public Schools, were 0.7 percent of those whose schools were closed, according to the Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

Coalition member Brown says the closures are unfair. "People that pay taxes don’t have a public school in their immediate area," he says, citing the shuttered Price Elementary in the North Kenwood neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side. Since the school closed in 2012, "You have neighborhoods now that for more than a square mile there is not a school to serve the needs of the children." 

But in the slash-and-burn ethos of school district officials, keeping "failing" schools open is too expensive a burden. Better to shut down schools and relocate students across the district, the logic goes. But school closures haven’t proven to be a helpful education reform tactic. And they instead destabilize an entire community, activists argue. 

Going to a school on the chopping block isn’t easy, Dyett senior McCullough says. "It sends the message that you’re a failure, and your school doesn’t deserve to be open, so you gotta close," she says. "It might not be your school today, but it might be your school eventually."