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  August 23, 2015

Chicago Parents Launch Hunger-Strike for Community Input in School's Future

Chicago Parent-activist Jitu Brown and professor Pauline Lipman say the fight for community input in the future of Dyett High School mirrors those happening across Chicago and the country
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JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News. I'm Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

In education news from Chicago, a dozen parents and activists have entered the fifth day of a hunger strike to demand officials adopt a community-developed plan for the future of Dyett High School.

SPEAKER: We know this is political. We know this is about ignoring black parents, because that's what this is about. This is racist, and Stevie Wonder can see that.

NOOR: The city is currently considering several proposals, and has scheduled a public hearing for September. Chicago Public Schools says their process is community-driven, and will select the best educational option. Located in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Bronzeville on Chicago's South Side Dyett has long been a center of community struggle, especially since it was slated for closure in 2012.

Now joining us to discuss this are two guests. We're joined by Jitu Brown. He's a longtime Chicago education activist. He was with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. We're also joined by Pauline Lipman, professor of educational policy studies and the director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Thank you both for joining us.

JITU BROWN: Thank you.

NOOR: So Jitu, we know you're joining us from outdoors, which is unusual, but you're at the site where this is all happening. Tell us why parents have gone to the lengths of a hunger strike.

BROWN: Absolutely. Members--we formed a coalition called the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School. First I will say, I've been on the local school council at Dyett since 2003. And since 2009 we've been trying to engage Chicago public Schools on a vision for how to improve education, not only at Dyett, but sort of a K-12 system of education in our neighborhood. As parents, and this is not our job as parents. Some communities get that K-12 education just because they are who they are in the same city.

And since that time Chicago Public Schools has done nothing but sabotage the improvements at Dyett High School, like having the largest increase of students going to college in the entire city in 2008, and then for two straight years the largest decrease in arrests and suspensions, 2008-2009, with a nationally recognized restorative justice program. And then in 2011 winning the ESPN Rise Up award, beating out over 400 other schools around the country. As a small school that needed some support we won a $4 million renovation from ESPN to our athletic facilities, and then next year they phased the school out.

So the process has never been community-driven. We submitted a proposal to CPS for Dyett Global Leadership and [Green] Technology High School as the hub for what we call a sustainable community school village in April of this year.

NOOR: And Jitu, can you tell us how this plan contrasts with the other plans that CPS is considering?

BROWN: Absolutely. The plan for [inaud.] Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School envisions our children as community-centered scholars, looks at young people having a course of study that coincides with life and business in the 21st century. So we want our young people to understand, to study green technology, because they understand how to impact their world. Studying green technology young people will learn urban agriculture as they live in a food desert, which will allow them to be able to address real life issues that they encounter. And global leadership because we want our young people to see themselves as global citizens, not as minorities but as part of a global family, and have the capacity and the confidence to impact the world.

And we want it to be a district-run Chicago Public School institution, as opposed to the other two proposals, where they will be contract schools. Where they will be run by private companies. And it's insulting to our community that the only institutions you propose for black families are institutions connected to athletics or connected to entertainment. We want strong athletics. We want strong arts, music, in our schools. But we want them as part of a well-rounded academic institution, just like they had in [Lincoln Park].

NOOR: And Jitu, I wanted to ask you, what other options do parents and families and neighbors have? I know one protester told a local news agency now that Dyett has been phased out, the last class, it was just 13 students graduated in June. If Dyett isn't reopened, one protester told WGNTV her child would have to travel 16 miles to get to the nearest high school.

BROWN: Absolutely. That parent--I don't want to call her a protester. That mother is [Jeanette Raman]. And her child, they're looking at Lakeview, which is a high-quality neighborhood high school that's two blocks away from Rahm Emanuel's house. There's another parent named Anna Jones who had to send her child to [Little Village] High School, which ironically is the school where parents waged a 19-day hunger strike to win in 2001. It's a shame that parents have to starve themselves. These are mothers and fathers. We have to starve ourselves to have our voices heard while parents in other parts of the city of Chicago have to, parents in Lincoln Park and in Uptown and Rogers Park simply went to a meeting and said they didn't want a charter school. And the CPS pulled it off the table. Parents in Hyde Park went to pressure their local alderman, the same alderman that's attempting to block what we're trying to do, and said they wanted the overcrowding at Kenwood Academy to be relieved, and in three months they had the keys to the school. And now [cantor] is the seventh and eighth-grade academy to relieve the overcrowding at Kenwood.

We've been working on this for five years. So it is a clear referendum on structural and institutional racism in the United States when engaged and involved black parents who have developed a visionary proposal for public education in Bronzeville are ignored because of politics. So yes, we'll put our bodies on the line.

NOOR: And now I wanted to bring Pauline Lipman--Jitu, I wanted to bring Pauline Lipman into the conversation. So Pauline, we're talking about a very specific school in Chicago's South Side. Explain how this fits into the larger picture in Chicago and education policy school reform around the country.

PAULINE LIPMAN: Yeah. As Jitu said, this is an issue of, first of all of racial justice. CPS, Chicago Public Schools, Mayor Rahm Emanuel beginning with Mayor Daley have consistently over the last 10, 12 years been disinvesting in schools in black and Latino communities, in neighborhood schools. They've been over-investing in privately run charter schools and selective enrollment schools in middle class, and gentrifying the areas of the city. So we had a whole history here, and a city-wide process of racial injustice. And we've really have a two-tiered education system, and Dyett is really an example, a prime example of that process.

And I also think that we need to think about that it's not actually, this is not just about education. It's part of a much bigger plan to remake this whole city into a gentrified city, a city for corporate headquarters, for financial institutions, for upper middle class people, and to push out working class African-American and Latino families. And the Dyett situation is a really prime example of that. Dyett is located in beautiful Washington Park, a park that may be the site of the new Obama library. This is prime real estate that the real estate developers have been trying to get their hands on. There was much talk about marketing the whole area as an arts district. One of the plans, the plan put forward by Little Black Pearl, that's an arts organization, they're not a school operator that runs a good school. They run a very poor, poor-performing charter school at the moment. Their plan is connected with [ring shore] Developers, which is a real estate developer that focuses on arts development in the area.

So this is part of a much bigger plan to push out working class African-Americans from the whole Bronzeville area, and to gentrify that area. And this is not only happening in Chicago. If we look around the country where schools have been closed in working class, low-income, African-American and Latino areas we see that very often these plans are tied to gentrification and pushing people out of the city.

NOOR: Pauline Lipman, Jitu Brown, thank you so much for joining us, and we'll certainly keep following this story.

BROWN: Thank you.

LIPMAN: Thank you.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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