From the moment Scott Goldstein called the meeting to attention, it was clear it wasn’t going to go the way he intended.
Goldstein, along with other consultants from community engagement firm Teska, had been brought on by 4th Ward Alderman Will Burns to lead a public meeting over the future of Dyett High School in Bronzeville, a school experiencing the last gasps of a phaseout announced in 2012. As Goldstein began to read out the agenda he’d projected onto the two-story screen behind him, the couple hundred in attendance made enough noise for the auditorium, built to hold all 784 students at King College Prep High School, to feel packed.
The plan for the meeting was simple: After a few short presentations on the history and demographics of the Southeast Side neighborhood, the crowd would be divided into three “breakout sessions” where Teska consultants would record popular ideas on paper easels. “Our job is to help facilitate community input, and help make sure that input gets back to the alderman and to CPS,” Goldstein said before the meeting.
CPS’s school repurposing policy means that Burns, who agreed to put on the meeting after intense pressure from the community, will be the ultimate decider in how the Dyett space will be used after the school’s closure is completed in 2015. What he and Goldstein didn’t account for was that the crowd had already all but made up its mind, and Jitu Brown wanted them to know it.
Brown, a chief organizer from the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), commanded as much attention from his hulking frame as his booming, articulate voice as he walked toward Goldstein and asked for the mic.
“Excuse me, sir,” By the time Brown opened his mouth, the crowd would hear nothing else the bespectacled, neatly-dressed Goldstein had to say. They chanted “Let him speak! Let him speak!” until a flustered Goldstein had no choice but to give up the mic.
“I’m sorry sir, but there’s a reason for mistrust in this process,” Brown bellowed to a roar of applause. “We asked a long time ago for one of our educators to be able our present the plan for Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology Community High School, and you ignored us–we’ve been working on this proposal for four years, and we’re not about to start from scratch.” Brown waved the 57-page document above his head, and, rules be damned, he gave the mic to a colleague to present the plan the crowd was clamoring for.
At first glance, Walter H. Dyett looks more like an oversized greenhouse than a high school.
Shrouded by trees at the northern edge of Washington Park, a South Side green space that often draws local gangs from its poverty-stricken surroundings, Dyett isn’t immediately visible from the street. With East 51st street at their face and a web of park trails and baseball diamonds at their backs, the school’s two huge glass buildings have become a landmark for the storied Bronzeville neighborhood, once famous for the jazz renaissance it helped create.
Established as a middle school in 1972, Dyett became a high school in 1999 and struggled to stay successful as the neighborhood transformed around it. Since Brown joined Dyett’s local school council in 2003, he’s seen the school rise and fall through immense challenges.
“The school had no honors or AP classes when it started, but we started trying to get programs like that offered, and it was really improving,” he said. Even after Dyett absorbed 100 new students from the 2008 closure of Englewood High School, which Brown said “destroyed the school climate there,” Dyett had the highest increase in graduation rate of any facility in the 600-school district.
It all led to a watershed event in 2011 when the ESPN program Rise Up answered a passionate plea from athletic director Clarence Smith to put Dyett on the national map. The show’s premise was “to make over the athletic facilities of four extremely deserving schools around the country,” like a gym version of Extreme Makeover. By the end of summer 2011, ESPN had made a $4 million investment in Dyett.
“We got this brand new beautiful gym, new uniforms for all the teams, and this new weight room that looked like an LA Fitness,” recalled Aquila Griffin, who had just finished her freshman year at Dyett when the renovation was announced. (Story continues below video)
Less than a year later, word came from CPS that the school was being closed.
“I walked in the day everyone heard, and the first thing I remember was that everyone was out in the halls, no one was in their classes – it was like total chaos,” Griffin said. “That was when teachers started disappearing, and they started taking away all our programs.”
Despite the school’s achievements and its new facility renovation, the fact remained that based on nearly every on-paper metric, Dyett was failing. By 2011 the school had spent seven consecutive years on academic probation, and the graduation rate had dipped below 35 percent. Citing these facts in a two-page report, CPS proposed a three-year phaseout during which the school would accept no new students, but those enrolled could finish out their path to graduation.
“It’s challenging to meet the needs of a school with so few students, no one is pretending otherwise,” said CPS spokesman Joel Hood of keeping Dyett above water during the phaseout. “But right now, before considering what will be in that building next, our priority is making sure students and staff there have everything they need to succeed.”
Two years after the announcement, 24 students are about to enter their final year at Dyett. They represent all that’s left of the Dyett student body, and what remains for them is the absolute skeleton of high school education. With most of the staff dismissed, no advanced-level or elective classes are offered there. When the school stopped offering biology, a class Griffin needed to graduate, she was forced to transfer.
Year by year, more and more mandatory classes were offered online instead of in person. Nefateria Denton, a rising senior at Dyett, had to take English and U.S. history online. No longer able to set foot in the school’s state-of-the-art athletic facility, which the principal barred from student use after the last physical education teacher was laid off, Denton had the option of taking online gym or online art. She chose art.
“It was terrible – it just had you memorize facts about some paintings and then prove that you knew them,” Denton said. “You want a classroom experience, especially for art, and we aren’t getting that.”
Following massive protest in response to the 2012 phaseout announcement, community members began tossing around ideas for ways to keep the building open as a public, open-enrollment neighborhood school. Otherwise, students in the area would have few options for high school: anyone who didn’t test into the nearby King and Dunbar High Schools, both selective-enrollment institutions, would have to try their luck at the overcrowded Kenwood or the faraway Phillips Academy, Dyett’s designated welcoming school. Since control of Phillips was turned over to the Academy for Urban School Leadership in 2010 the school has adopted an austere zero-tolerance policy (flying in the face of the district’s trend toward restorative justice), causing a spike in performance but resulting in enrollment being cut by nearly half.
“[Phillips] has adopted a corporate model, not driven by parents or the community – and it’s important that students in Bronzeville have an open-enrollment option that’s in their own neighborhood,” said education consultant Duane Turner, a former CPS teacher and principal who lives three blocks from Dyett. “So a lot of us came together to look at creating a larger, more cohesive educational plan that served students and the community.”
The community held a series of “retreats” to begin drawing up the plan, and the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett was born. Within a year the group included representation from local teachers, students, community groups like KOCO, nearby businesses and organizations, and University of Illinois at Chicago professors. After two years of discussions, research and drafts (including the Bronzeville Global Achievers Village Plan, developed in late 2011) the group was ready in 2013 to present its plan for the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology Community High School. The plan detailed an extensive curriculum and funding strategy for a school that would incorporate green energy and climate change into each of its courses. The document outlined partnerships with the Chicago Botanic Gardens, the DuSable Museum and the Washington Park Conservancy and a heavy focus on pre-professional programs, a provision pushed hard by 2014 Dyett graduate Parrish Brown.
“For a lot of kids in this neighborhood there just isn’t anybody around them being like “go to college,” said Brown (no relation to Jitu). “You need a school here that’s drilling that message into people’s heads, and making sure they really have the opportunity to do it.”
But as meticulous as the plan was, it would be useless unless Burns gave it his stamp of approval.
Feeling they didn’t have the attention of their alderman or of CPS, residents spent June 2014 holding major protests at City Hall and outside Burns’s Bronzeville office asking him to support the plan. Denying rumors that he had been in talks to bring the Little Black Pearl charter school to Dyett, Burns announced his support for Dyett to continue as an open-enrollment public school but stopped short of endorsing the plan. After continued relentless protests, Burns agreed to hold a town hall meeting to hear different ideas for the school. While the proposal has gained broad and intense support within the neighborhood, it hardly represents a consensus – after all the Bronzeville Community Action Council, the community’s most direct line to CPS policymakers, has yet to support the plan in any official way.
By the time the 200 attendees trickled into the King High School auditorium, they had little patience for new ideas. As Goldstein appealed to the crowd for calm with outstretched arms, increasingly indignant speakers took turns bashing CPS and elected officials – from Burns up through Rahm Emanuel – all while touting the coalition’s plan.
“We’ve gone through this process before – the plan is done, and it’s detailed – for you to be writing down new ideas is an insult,” said Kimberly Walls, a Bronzeville resident and a middle school teacher, turning toward Goldstein. “We have ideas, and they’re here.” She plopped the coalition’s proposal into his hands to a swell of cheers. “All you have to do is read it.”
An hour-and-a-half into the meeting, Goldstein informed the raving crowd that time had run out, that the “formal session” of the meeting was over. A line of people waiting to speak shouted in protest as he turned off the microphones and shuffled out of the room. By the time he returned with a police officer in tow, nearly everyone in attendance had jumped from their seats and taken up the chant Let the people speak! Let the people speak! Burns, previously leaning on the stage ramp listening to increasingly intense flak from each new speaker, had already escaped to the lobby.
The police guided people out of the auditorium; the meeting was over. Attendees fanned out onto the school’s patio to register what had just happened.
“We’ve been through this charade so many times where they bring in a third party to pretend to listen to us, and try to split us up into groups as a way of trying to tamp down the opposition,” Turner said after the meeting. “So with everything that happened in there, at the very least we were able to take a meeting that would have been a total waste of time, and made it so our voices were heard.”
As for whether the meeting would be enough to pressure Burns into supporting the coalition’s plan, his office isn’t preparing to make a decision any time in the foreseeable future.
“It just wouldn’t be appropriate for the alderman to make a decision about the proposal right now,” said Lars Weborg, Burns’s director of policy and communications. “But it’s great to see how people share the alderman’s vision for a high-quality open-enrollment school. When this many people care, everyone benefits.”
Still, Brown was confident that sooner or later, they’d earn his support.
“At the end of the day, he’s not going to have a choice,” Brown said. “If he continues to ignore us, there’ll be repercussions. And if it takes forming a chain around Dyett to keep it from closing, that’s what we’ll do.”
All photos by Sooahn Ko of the Chicago Bureau.