To the Editor:
In the May 21 edition of the Hyde Park Herald, guest columnist Jay Travis wrote about educational inequalities by comparing Dyett High School to selective enrollment schools and other high schools in other parts of the city. It is not hard to make the argument that there are glaring disparities. There are many reasons to be upset and lots of places where fingers can be pointed. However, I would not go as far as to say that the demise and ultimate closing of Dyett is the result of poor aldermanic leadership.
With the current decision-making structure, aldermen do not have any direct influence on Chicago Public Schools (CPS) policy as it pertains to the closing of schools. They can advocate for their schools, but only if the school is in their ward, which is not the case with Dyett and Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd). Beyond that, all they can do is introduce non-binding resolutions to City Council expressing their dislike of a proposed action. They can gather input from the community and relay it back to the decision makers, but at the end of the day, the Board of Education will decide the fate of each school.
As Travis points out, Alds. Will Burns (4th) and Dowell have been outspoken critics of CPS’ selective enrollment criteria because of the disparity in enrollment between African American and Caucasian students. Like Travis, I applaud this effort, but also agree that we need to protect and sustain our neighborhood schools.
I am a Third Ward resident, so I can only write about what I have seen from Dowell who has represented our community for the last seven years. During this time, I have seen her orchestrate and/or attend public meetings for every school action CPS has proposed. When Phillips High School was turned over to the Academy of Urban School Leadership, she convened a community meeting and established the Phillips Oversight Committee to work with school officials, parents, students and other community stakeholders to ensure neighborhood students were getting a quality education.
In regards to last year’s school actions, Dowell worked closely with members of the Bronzeville Community Action Council to keep 25 of the 27 schools that were initially on the hit list open. Even with the closure of Overton and Parkman, there was no overall loss of neighborhood schools. This was because community efforts led by Dowell turned two city-wide schools into neighborhood schools. Since Drake Elementary moved into the Williams Multiplex building, the children who live at Dearborn Homes can attend the school in their backyard. Previously, there was no guarantee of enrollment for these students and many of them had to travel across King Drive to get to school. Similarly, when Wells Prep moved into the Mayo Elementary building, the attendance boundary that belonged to Mayo stayed intact. Wells Prep also had a city-wide enrollment policy, but because of the alderman’s efforts, the students who attended Mayo were able to stay in the same building. Additionally, Wells Prep is one of two elementary schools in the Third Ward that is ushering in a new IB program.
Along with her efforts to promote more equitable enrollment at selective enrollment schools, Dowell’ s record does not seem indicative of someone who ignores inequality. It seems quite clear that she has been an advocate for neighborhood schools. She has also been an outspoken critic of charter schools because she knows they drain needed resources away from our neighborhood schools, thereby compounding problems of inequality.
I understand Travis’ frustrations as they are shared by many of us in the community. However, I think it is counter-productive to make generalized statements such as expressing your disappointment with aldermen “about the lack of concern for the future of youth who rely on neighborhood schools as a pathway to success” that is based on your dissatisfaction with how one specific instance was handled. Getting a clearer understanding of what elected officials have done in the past and what they can effectively do in the present and future under the current decision-making structure or working towards changing that structure would be a more effective towards creating the educational outcomes we all want to see for all of our students.