A hunger strike in Chicago led by a community group vying to open a new school in the shuttered Dyett High School on the South Side has entered a dangerous stage with at least one participant hospitalized and others at increasing physical risk. The safety of the hunger strikers is paramount and overshadows the underlying issues.
The school’s namesake, Walter H. Dyett, was a legendary music teacher at two South Side High Schools—DuSable and Phillips—from the 1930s through the 1960s. His students include many of the biggest names in jazz: Nat King Cole, Gene Ammons, Milt Hinton, Johnny Griffin and countless others. Dyett is a genuine Chicago hero and one of the greatest music educators in American history.
The school that took his name, however, has struggled in recent years. Originally a middle school, it converted to a high school in 1999. In an unfortunate case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Dyett High School came into existence at the very moment when the neighborhood was starting to depopulate and the charter school movement was just getting underway in Chicago, offering more and better choices.
At the same time, the system was shifting to an all-choice model that empowered families to send high school students anywhere in the city. By 2011-12, when the decision was made to close Dyett, enrollment was way down, more than 70 percent of the area high school students attended schools other than Dyett, and the percentage of students meeting state standards was in the very low double digits.
Last year, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) issued a request for proposals (RFP) to reopen Dyett as a new high school. Three proposals were submitted. The first, from the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), proposes an urban agriculture theme. The second, from a local, non-profit arts organization, Little Black Pearl, is based on an arts-oriented curriculum. The last, from the former Dyett principal, proposes a sports-themed school.
Originally slated for a mid-August decision, CPS, under new leadership as of the beginning of August, pushed the decision-date back a month. In response, KOCO, which tried to stop the school closure three years ago, launched the hunger strike. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Chicago Teacher’s Union President Karen Lewis, both KOCO funders, quickly embraced the strike.
As a publicity tactic, the hunger strike is wildly successful and is trending madly on social media. As a strategy to win approval for its proposal, however, it’s entirely counterproductive and could even cost KOCO the prize.
First of all, it’s a colossal misjudgment of the new leadership at CPS, Forrest Claypool, a seasoned public servant who doesn’t blink in the face of public pressure. Two decades ago, he faced down furious aldermen all across the city when he reformed the Chicago Park District from a bloated, top-heavy patronage haven to a lean and lively community asset. They’re still mad at him.
Mayor Emanuel tapped Claypool to help stabilize a school system facing its worst financial crisis in history. Claypool does not take kindly to anyone putting a gun to his head, especially when he is simultaneously trying to save teacher pensions while sparing school children punishing budget cuts.
Second, it defies the most generous interpretation of fair play for one applicant in a competitive RFP process to simply demand the award through a death-defying tactic like a hunger strike. KOCO even went so far as to ask Little Black Pearl to withdraw its application, which probably justifies disqualification on its face.
As a successful local business and community center, Little Black Pearl has every right to compete for this opportunity and can legitimately claim to represent the voice of the community just as much as KOCO.
Third, it is altogether reasonable for the new leadership at CPS to delay its decision for a month. The new Dyett High School will not open until the fall of 2016 under any circumstances. A one-month delay makes no meaningful difference.
KOCO’s leader, Jitu Brown, is a respected leader in the Washington Park community. His proposal deserves full and fair consideration. It’s a strong proposal and Brown has certainly been a forceful advocate for the school for years.
KOCO’s tactics, however, are both destructive and anti-democratic. Before anyone gets seriously hurt, KOCO and its union allies should honor the public process and call off the hunger strike. If they don’t, and CPS awards the school to another applicant, they will have only themselves to blame.