How Hungry Are You for Better Public Education?

How far would you go to provide your child with a quality education? Would you...

A. Sell your beloved home in the city to rent a small apartment near a wealthier, better school?

B. Quit your job to homeschool your children? Or work two jobs to afford private school tuition, sacrificing quality family time?

C. Risk getting arrested at a heated City Hall school improvement protest?

D. Starve yourself in a hunger strike until your demands for a better neighborhood school are heard?

For a dozen African-American parents and community residents of the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, the answer was D. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officially closed Dyett High School in June, citing years of underperformance and low enrollment. The hashtag #FightForDyett garnered support for this band of hunger strikers from people around the country. The protesters didn’t just want Dyett reopened but they demanded that the curriculum be focused on global leadership and green technology. To that end, they went 34 days on a liquid diet to save and reinvent Dyett. Their gambit wasn’t unprecedented. The Dyett hunger strikers took a page from the playbook of 14 Mexican-American parents and community leaders on Chicago’s Southwest Side who in 2001 led a 19-day hunger strike to get CPS to build a state-of-the-art high school. It worked. Little Village Lawndale High School campus now houses four smaller schools in its beautiful edifice, the crown jewel of the surrounding community. But Dyett parents could not claim such a win. On September 3, CPS announced that it would reopen Dyett to neighborhood students next year as an arts school with a technology lab, not as a green technology school. Deteriorating health, including headaches, dizziness, fainting and weight loss of up to 35 pounds, forced these parents and grandparents to call off their hunger strike on September 19, without claiming a victory. I am unapologetically an advocate for the arts. I am also a teacher who believes that education must strategically lead to employment opportunities for students of color and that the majority of today’s jobs are in the areas of math, technology and science. In theory, merging art and science provides the best of both worlds. However, I, like the hunger strikers, am leery that CPS can effectively pull off such a plan, especially with the district’s enormous budget crisis. But more than that, I am left to chew on these two thoughts:
  1. The Dyett hunger strikers defied the narrative that inner-city black parents don’t care as deeply about their children’s education as white parents do. These parents and community members were willing to risk their health, and perhaps their lives, to secure a quality neighborhood school for their children.
  2. Families that do not have political clout or high socioeconomic status don’t usually have the resources to move into more affluent school districts, homeschool or send their kids to private schools. And getting arrested in demonstrations could essentially sentence them to a life of unemployability.
Therefore, bodily self-affliction through starvation may have been the most effective method for these disenfranchised, marginalized residents of Bronzeville to be heard. Public starvation was the bullhorn for these voiceless people who for years have been crying out. Even on day 31 of the hunger strike, protest leader Jitu Brown said that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had yet to meet with them. How sad! I’m relieved that the hunger strike is over. It was painful to watch older black bodies wasting away in a battle to find the best way to educate young black minds. It felt like a throwback to the 1950s and ’60s. While the Dyett hunger strikers didn’t get the results they had hoped for, their efforts provided us all with a feast of food for thought. What should democracy look like in public education? Can district and charter schools ever peacefully coexist? What role did race play in this battle over Dyett? I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.  
Marilyn Rhames has taught in district and charter schools in Chicago for the past 11 years and currently serves as alumni support manager at a K-8 charter school. A former New York City reporter, Rhames' award-winning education commentary is featured in Education Week and on Moody Radio in Chicago.

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