By Jay Travis
Recently, Alds. Pat Dowell (3rd) and Will Burns (4th) demanded hearings be held after a report indicated that white students were enrolled at a significantly higher rate than African American students in Chicago’s top four selective enrollment high schools. The irony is that both Alds. Dowell and Burns have not been nearly as strident when it comes to addressing the fate of a school that serves students in both their wards, Walter H. Dyett High School, 555 E. 51st St. While I agree that the decline in the number of African American students in the top four selective enrollment schools should be addressed, I am deeply disappointed about the lack of concern for the future of youth who have no choice but to rely on their neighborhood school as a pathway to success. Are they not as valued as the youth who attend selective enrollment schools? All children, regardless of their race and income, deserve to attend a quality public school with the resources and supports needed for them to succeed.
The unconscionable truth is 60 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, educational opportunities in this country remain largely separate and unequal. The true crime in today’s context is that the students at Dyett High School were never exposed to the curricula or educational opportunities provided for the students in Chicago’s top four selective enrollment high schools (or for top-tier high schools in other communities). This lack of opportunity is prevalent throughout neighborhoods in Chicago. It is not that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) does not know how to provide a quality education, such as the opportunities provided for the students in the top four selective enrollment schools; CPS does not choose to make the same opportunities available for all children. A course comparison between Dyett and Lakeview High School (a neighborhood high school on the North Side) reveals that the students at Lakeview had access to 12 advanced placement classes while students at Dyett did not have a single advanced placement class. Furthermore, as ridiculous as it sounds, Dyett students were forced to take art and physical education online.
The sad truth is that Dyett was once a high-performing middle school. With support of local elected officials, CPS transitioned what was once North Kenwood’s neighborhood high school, King High School, to a selective enrollment school. Students that could not test into King (many of whom lived directly across the street) were forced to attend a school that was over a mile away from their homes. Dyett, which was reclassified as the new neighborhood high school, was transitioned from a middle school to a high school in a three-month period, though it lacked basic resources like a functional library. Despite these setbacks, Dyett went on to develop an award-winning restorative justice program and recognition from Mayor Daley and Arne Duncan for the largest increase in college acceptance rates in CPS. Dyett received significant investments in the last four years, such as the green youth farm provided through a partnership with Chicago Botanic Garden and a $4 million dollar renovation of its athletic facilities donated by ESPN.
Instead of working with parents and the community to capitalize on these investments and improvements, CPS decided to give up on Dyett students. In the absence of a vision for Dyett from CPS, local school council members, scholars and concerned residents formed the Committee to Revitalize Dyett. The Committee has developed an academic plan for the new Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School; an open enrollment neighborhood school which will work closely with area feeder schools. In 2012, CPS ignored the efforts and participation of parents, youth and scholars, and voted to phase-out Dyett High School by 2015. Unfortunately, there remains an absence of leadership and vision from our elected officials, nor is there a plan from CPS to provide an academically challenging future for hundreds of our children.
This is irresponsible.
As the fate of a neighborhood school that serves primarily low-income African American youth in the 3rd and 4th wards hangs in the balance, Alds. Dowell and Burns have not demonstrated the same level of public concern as they have over enrollment in selective enrollment schools. This inertia — lack of care and absence of courage — will undoubtedly lead to the loss of another neighborhood high school whose history is a clear reflection of the inequities and ineffective policies that impact schools in predominately African American communities. Neither alderman has demanded a hearing about the pending closure of Dyett, or the record number of school closures throughout the city and in their wards over the last 10 years.
This is not an ‘either-or’ scenario. It is, however, a prime example of a ‘both-and’ scenario. Yes, African American students should have an equitable opportunity to attend selective enrollment schools; but they also deserve access to a high-quality education in their respective neighborhoods. Many parents have little alternative to enroll their children in selective enrollment schools because their neighborhood schools are under-resourced, and in many cases destabilized, as a result of failed CPS policies. Let’s prioritize the needs of all children, and create the public neighborhood schools that all of our children deserve.
Jay Travis is former candidate for state representative of the 26th District and former head of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization.