“Cause everybody dies in the summer / Wanna say your goodbyes, tell ‘em while it’s spring / I heard everybody’s dying in the summer So pray to God for a little more spring.”– Chance the Rapper tweet
The first thing that struck me when I walked up King Drive to 35th Street, where the throng of people sat in front of the fourth ward alderman’s office, was the heat. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve been a Chicagoan since the day I was born, which means I was born for bad weather. I lived through the heat wave of 1995, when over 700 people died, and through the blizzard in 2011, when the cars sat stacked on Lake Shore Drive, still, like terracotta warriors. So it wasn’t the fact of the weather that got me; it was the old folks there in it. And the babies. And then, when my eyes lingered a bit longer, it was the mothers, and the teenagers, and—well, everybody. They sat in folding chairs under the scant, moving shade of skinny trees, or leaned against the wrought iron fence, or sat on the steps of the alderman’s office. They were gathered in the name of Dyett, the high school that the leaders of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced in 2012 would be shuttered at the end of 2015. This group of parents, community members, and students—many of them affiliated with the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), one of the oldest black organizing groups in the country—sat in the 95-degree heat to demand a meeting with the alderman, Will Burns. They wanted him to consider their proposal to re-open Dyett as an open-enrollment, community-based school.
I shared some bottles of water and sat for a while. It was hot. We moved the chairs periodically as the sun shifted across the sky. A city worker drove by in a pickup truck, hauling a trailer laden with park maintenance equipment. He raised his fist out the window and gave a cheer, and the folks gathered cheered back. I listened to Mrs. McCall((The names of people who have been quoted as public figures involved in the Dyett hunger strike have been retained in this story; others have been changed.)) talk about how her grandfather owned a store in Mississippi, how she moved north when she was 12 years old and spent her summers traveling back to visit him. She told me how to make the best of my time in graduate school. “What is your passion?” she asked me. “What do you love the most?” My gaze traveled across the street, to the King Branch library where I had once hosted afterschool research sessions so that my students could have help finding reference books, where many of them stayed in the afternoons because it was a safe, free place to do homework until their parents got off work, where if I stopped to just borrow or return a novel they would grin broadly, excited to see me outside of school. I pretended I had x-ray vision, and squinted my eyes to look through the library, to peer west one block and north three blocks, to where that school was, the school where I taught. What do you love the most?
That day, that hot day, that was a year ago. Last week, I saw some of those same old folks, those same babies, in front of Dyett, at the northern end of the South Side’s sprawling Washington Park. And unlike all the other times I had seen them, they were not demanding a meeting. They were through with meetings. Today, twelve of them were beginning a hunger strike. I knelt in the grass next to Irene Robinson, a grandmother of nine children, who I saw get escorted away by police in City Hall a few weeks ago when she showed up to protest the closing of Dyett; every time I see her, she strikes me with the same two memorable traits—she wears fantastic purple or fuschia lipstick and, when we part, bids farewell by saying “I love you!” so enthusiastically that I am moved to say it back.
“Are you scared, Ms. Irene?”
“I’m scared,” she tells me, looking past me to the behemoth black building that stands empty behind my shoulders. “I’m scared for my grandchildren.”
Tonight, as I write this, it is Sunday, day seven of the hunger strike. This morning, I attended a special service at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, where the pastor has joined the strike in a show of support. Ms. Robinson and the other hunger strikers sat in the front pews, across the aisle from where I sat with my niece, Leila, who at two (almost three) is nevertheless remarkably good at sitting quietly in church. She watched, wide-eyed, as KOCO’s lead education organizer, Jitu Brown, stood at the pulpit. I split my time between watching him and watching her, thinking about the nights I have spent scouring the internet for an affordable, high-quality place for her to go to preschool (spoiler alert: there aren’t any). I think about the map I saw recently in a report from the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for Children, charting the availability of state-licensed childcare in Chicago, community by community. Our neighborhood was noted as having .07 – .21 slots for every child aged 0-5, meaning that quality childcare would be out of reach for 79-93% of young children in the area. I think about how I wish Leila could at least get to three before the worry set in about where and how she would get access to a good education, before I am jolted back to the present by Jitu.
“Even when we were in slavery,” he is saying into the microphone, “black people fought for schools. And “our ancestors evacuated the South to come here, to find a better life for their children…. The institution that our ancestors fought for and won—we’ve got to reclaim it.” As for why the time has come to lay his body on the line for Dyett, after years of meetings and proposals and arguments and civil disobedience, Brown says it plainly, tugging at the waistband of pants that have become looser in the last week. “You stop playing somebody else’s game when you realize the game is rigged.” I look back at Leila, who has fallen asleep in the pew next to me.
We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray….
– Gwendolyn Brooks, “kitchenette building” tweet
If you read any of the articles or blog posts about the hunger strike to save Dyett, or check the #saveDyett hashtag on Twitter, you’ll hear that Dyett is “the last open-enrollment school in Bronzeville.” If, like the majority of Americans, you grew up in a place where there is no such thing as “deciding” where you attend high school, it might be unclear what “open enrollment” means.
In Chicago, as in many large urban districts across the country, over the course of the last 15 years the concept of “school choice” as a popular bipartisan idea has entrenched itself to an impressive degree. Whereas once upon a time, cities and counties were divided up on a map and students simply attended the school closest to where they lived (what’s known technically as a “catchment school,” or in big cities, a “neighborhood school”), the era of choice has more or less changed all of that in places like Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, and other large districts that serve primarily children of color. Where once the only way to exercise some kind of “school choice” was to attend private school, children can now stay in the public school district and apply to a magnet school, enter the lottery for a charter school, apply to a special vocational or career academy, or try to test into an academically elite “selective enrollment” school serving only a small sliver of top-performing students. (In New York these are known as “specialized schools,” in Boston you may know them as “exam schools.”) While such elite schools are often publicly touted as gems of the district, Chicago’s selective enrollment schools only serve about 12% of the city’s public high school students. Charter schools, meanwhile, are more likely than traditional public schools to expel or suspend students with disabilities, and two of the city’s most high-profile charter high schools—Noble Street and Urban Prep—are also two of the most likely to lose students between freshman year and graduation.
Unlike a charter school, where students have to enter and win a lottery to enroll, or a selective enrollment school, where students have to be deemed members of the academic top tier to enroll, an open-enrollment neighborhood high school is open to any student who lives nearby. That means that everyone is guaranteed a spot.((Wendell Phillips Academy, also in Bronzeville, is also an open-enrollment high school, but it is managed not directly by the district but as a turnaround school by the controversial non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership, which CPS contracts to operate schools within the district with a great deal of autonomy.))
And it’s not just the “last open enrollment school” part that makes Dyett important—there’s also the Bronzeville part. The historic Bronzeville community on Chicago’s South Side was one of the most important arrival sites for African-Americans moving north during the Great Migration, and has been home to a bevy of intellectual, artistic, and political luminaries, from Ida B. Wells to Richard Wright, from Gwendolyn Brooks to Louis Armstrong. “Captain” Walter Henri Dyett, for whom the school is named, was an influential black music teacher who served CPS from the 1930s until the 1960s, during which time his students included Nat King Cole, Bo Diddley, Vonn Freeman, Dinah Washington, and John Gilmore (who played saxophone with Sun Ra).
The community of Bronzeville is no stranger to hardship or the racism that begets it: from the 1919 race riot to the high-density kitchenette buildings that packed in black residents in the 1930s and 1940s, where an entire family might have shared a room furnished with a hot plate in lieu of a real kitchen and use a bathroom in the hallway shared with other residents, to the struggles of families living in the public high-rise projects that emerged during the 1950s and 1960s—the Ida B. Wells Homes, Stateway Gardens, Robert Taylor Homes, and other names that came to strike terror in the hearts of white Chicagoans who never actually set foot south of the Loop. But, amidst all those challenges, school closings stand out as a particularly insidious and heart-wrenching form of hurt. By my count, CPS has closed 16 elementary schools in Bronzeville since 1998, bouncing students unceremoniously from one building to the next, with some students experiencing multiple closures over the short span of their elementary school education.
Losing your school is hard for everyone involved. Really hard. When I found out that the school where I taught would be closing, I was visiting my father in Florida for spring break, and I locked myself in the bedroom and cried like a little kid. I started replaying life there in my head, over and over, like a sappy montage in a bad movie. Here’s me walking down the hallway for the first time, on my way to meet the principal for a job interview. Here’s Nathan, staying in my classroom after hours to write and illustrate a story about the Great Depression. Here’s Patricia standing proudly in front of the whole school and perfectly reciting her lines as Lady Capulet, despite her hearing impairment and speech impediment. Here’s the staff meeting where we find out that Nashae has cancer, and strategize about how we’re going to coordinate hospital visits, frozen dinners, and rides home for her sister. Here’s Omari connecting a circuit for the first time, and Sierra lovingly feeding Peanut, the gecko that was our class pet. Here is our school.
Here is my personal opinion, as someone who has gone through a school closing, my professional opinion as an educator, and my scholarly opinion as a researcher who is now writing a dissertation about Bronzeville’s shuttered schools. I will say it without reservation to whomever will listen, so listen: the decision to shuffle students from one building to another in the name of numbers is shameful. The decision to do so is based on the premise that children, teachers, and schools are indistinguishable widgets, to be distributed as efficiently as possible across the landscape. But the fact is that schools are ecosystems, each with its own history, culture, and intricately woven set of social relationships. Schools are community anchors. They not interchangeable, nor are they disposable. Schools are home.
Regular school closings, like I experienced, are hard. What’s happened at Dyett is arguably even harder. Since CPS opted for a slow “phase-out” over several years, students and teachers had to watch as the world around them was slowly dismantled, piece by piece. As teachers and students left, the school’s budget was thrown into disarray, so that the students who were left had to take online courses to get credits in Spanish and social studies, and even art, music, and physical education. One girl I interviewed told me that her teacher quit, for fear that if he stuck around until the school was totally closed, he wouldn’t be able to find a job the next year. He never told his students he was leaving—they walked into the classroom one day and found a note he had left for them. Like he was dumping them.
After CPS’s plan to close Dyett was announced four years ago, a coalition of community members led by KOCO created a proposal for it to reopen as what they have called a “global village academy,” an open-enrollment neighborhood high school where teachers, parents, and local school council members would work together with educators from the local elementary schools to share resources to create a continuous educational pipeline for students from preschool to twelfth grade. The district ignored the idea. Then, in December 2014, something strange happened, something that doesn’t happen often: CPS changed its mind. Sort of. They did not accept the plan, but they did something unprecedented—issued a request for proposals from the community, seeking “innovative programmatic design” from whoever had a good idea for how to bring back the school.
To the people who had already presented a plan to bring back the school, this seemed strange and even disrespectful. During a CPS hearing, one parent shouted, “it’s not like we woke up and wrote a proposal one day in crayon… shouldn’t nobody be up here [offering a proposal] but us.” But they went forward with the process. The rebranded “Coalition to Revitalize Dyett,” led by KOCO with support and participation from the University of Illinois-Chicago, the Botanic Garden, the Du Sable Museum of African-American History, and the Chicago Teachers Union, put together a more robust proposal. The final version incorporated community feedback and insight from teachers and UIC faculty, and ultimately outlined a school focused on “global leadership and green technology.” The proposal says that its design team “envisions a high school that will be grounded in the history of Bronzeville and thoroughly integrated with the local community,” through a “partnership among teachers, administrators, parents, and community residents.”
Our model is of a sustainable school rooted in the community. This proposal comes from the people of Bronzeville who speak from the heart about a school that lives in a village of tightly interconnected feeder schools, community institutions and organizations, local school councils of dedicated and loving adults, relationships, and the meaning of place. tweet
By the time the deadline arrived, two proposals had been submitted to CPS: the Coalition plan, and a proposal from Little Black Pearl, a well-regarded arts organization that runs youth programming in the area. Little Black Pearl currently operates a charter school in the area, but its 166 enrolled students have struggled with reading and math scores, attendance, and credit attainment. Its annual “My Voice, My School” report, issued by the district as a measure of parent satisfaction with each of the city’s schools, has no reported data because fewer than 30% of parents responded to the survey. After the proposal submission deadline, a third plan appeared, for a school that would be called “Washington Park Athletic Career Academy,” where “in every classroom, we’ll be using sports themes to educate kids,” according to proposal lead Charles Campbell, who was also the principal hired at Dyett during its phase-out period. The three plans were presented at a hearing on June 17, and an additional public hearing was scheduled for Monday, August 10, when a final decision would be made.
In the days leading up to that Monday, I kept my calendar fastidiously clear, ready to show up at the hearing with my notepad and tape recorder to take notes for my research. CPS hadn’t named a time or even a location for the hearing, which made it seem unlikely that any community members would show up, but I wanted to be on call to go anywhere, any time. On Friday afternoon, the hearing was cancelled, and rescheduled for September 15—a week after the first day of school. Dyett would stay closed for another year.
“When they cancelled that hearing,” said Jitu at the pulpit, “that let us know.”
Survival is not an academic skill.
– Audre Lorde tweet
Hunger striking for schools has a history in Chicago. Beginning on Mother’s Day 2001, a group of 14 parents and community members in the city’s predominantly Mexican-American Little Village neighborhood held a 19-day hunger strike after CPS promised to build a new school to relieve overcrowding in the neighborhood, then delayed the project. Meanwhile, two new selective enrollment schools had been constructed including Northside College Prep, where I rode a bus an hour every day to attend school. The strikers camped out in tents on the corner near the intersection where the land for the school was purchased, but never developed, declaring it “Camp Cesar Chavez.”
Paul Vallas, who was then CEO of the district (yes, in Chicago the superintendent is called the CEO), called the hunger strike “blackmail,” and said “I’m not going to locate it on a site because people are threatening not to eat. You could have one of these a week.” Vallas left his post a few months later, and was replaced by Arne Duncan, who is of course now Secretary of Education. “I support [the strikers]” Duncan told the Chicago Tribune. “I solved the thing. I actually have a hell of a lot of respect for them.” The architects assigned to construct the new Little Village High School featured fourteen flowering trees to honor the strikers, and an entryway adorned with glass partitions set at 19-degree angles.
I thought of Arne (here in Chicago we call him Arne) on my way to Dyett today. And I thought of his boss, since to get to Dyett I had to pass Barack Obama’s home, which is about eight blocks away. And I thought of Paul Vallas, who since leaving Chicago has been the superintendent of schools in New Orleans, where there are now no traditional public schools left, and Philadelphia, which in 2013 saw 23 of its public schools closed. As of this writing, neither Mayor Rahm Emanuel nor anyone from CPS has commented on the hunger strike. This morning, Irene Robinson was admitted to the hospital to receive medical support. She didn’t have to go far—Provident Hospital, across the street from Dyett, was founded by Daniel Hale Williams, the African-American doctor who performed the world’s first open heart surgery. There was once a school in Bronzeville named after Dr. Williams. It was closed in 2013.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” said Ms. Irene, hugging me from her wheelchair.
The intent for us is not to be here.– Jitu Brown tweet
When Chicago’s gun violence started becoming the fodder for cable news handwringing, people elsewhere in the country started asking me all the time what they could do about it. And often, my response was to be frustrated. My friend Diamond Sharp put it best in a long Facebook post: “You’ll be hard pressed to find a Chicago native that doesn’t think Chicago has a problem…. But it’s all faux interest. It’s gawking. People are using Chief Keef and ‘black on black violence’ as strawmen…. If you’re down to discuss the racism and classism that’s the root of this issue, cool. If not, grab a deep dish from Giordano’s and a mix bag from Garrett’s and get out.” Now, I find myself wishing that all the fascinated cab drivers and dinner party attendants and concerned well-wishers that used to ask me that question, their heads tilted benignly—“So, what’s up with the violence in Chicago?”—I wish they had interest in this kind of violence. The slow, quiet kind. I think of all the courageous, brilliant young black people—friends and strangers—that have filled my social media life for the last year, facing tear gas in Ferguson, packing the bridge in New York, laying their bodies on the line in Oakland. I wish I could reach out to them through the invisible mesh of the internet and grab their hands and bring them here.
A closed school is like a ghost. It lingers. It fills the space. In 2008, the year I began teaching and five years before my school was closed, it was already an occupant of a building where another school had lived and died before it—Douglas school, which was closed in 2004. Sometimes I would stand in the school auditorium when it was empty and try to imagine throngs of children and teachers I had never met, filling the seats for a talent show or an end-of-year award ceremony. I wondered about what their names were, and what music they liked, and what books they read.
Since my school closed, I guess you could say I’ve become something of a ghost hunter. On humid afternoons you can find me peering through the windows of closed schools around Bronzeville, trying to picture what used to be there. Inside the buildings you can sometimes catch glimpses of what’s left. Chairs, stacked high in layers of gleaming chrome. An American flag leaned against a dusty window. A haphazard pile of textbooks. I walk across empty playgrounds and trudge through unmown grass and I see all the ghosts. Sitting in a folding chair amid the Dyett hunger strikers and their supporters, I don’t have to see the ghosts alone. “I always think of double dutch,” one woman tells me. The whole line of girls playing double dutch, all along this way. And I used to enter through that door.”
I remember what Martin, one of the thirteen students who stayed at Dyett until its final year, told me recently. “Dyett is our fort.” Dyett is different than the other schools. Because Dyett might come back. And that, really, is what the hunger strike is about—the hope that what’s lost can return. Like maybe even in a city that never wanted us, and has found creative ways to show it, from the 1919 race riots to stopping and frisking people at a rate four times that of New York City, a city that broke our hearts so bad that the blues made us famous—maybe even here, black children and all of Chicago’s children can be guaranteed a high-quality education, whether or not they have high test scores or parents who enter them into a lottery. Maybe we can learn well and live well, right here in our own home.