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Should this school be saved? The fight over Chicago's Dyett High

CHICAGO (Reuters) - By just about any definition, Walter H. Dyett High School has failed.

Walter H. Dyett High School principal Charles Campbell is seen in his office in Chicago, Illinois, in this photo taken on October 5, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Young

Just 10 percent can pass the state math exam; barely one in six is proficient in reading. The technology lab is so ancient, some of the computers still take 3-inch floppy disks. More teens drop out than graduate.

Yet when the Chicago Board of Education announced plans to shut the place down, it sparked a community uprising.

Students, parents and teachers have staged sit-ins outside the mayor’s office; earlier this month, 10 were arrested for refusing to leave the fifth floor of City Hall. The protestors have held rallies. They’ve sued the school board. A group of students has filed a federal civil-rights complaint seeking to keep Dyett open.

Their quest to save a failed school may seem quixotic. But it is echoed in communities across the United States, as a rising anger at school closures takes hold.

The bipartisan education reform movement sweeping the nation - and promoted by President Barack Obama - calls for rating schools by their students’ test scores and then taking drastic steps to overhaul the worst performers by firing the teachers, turning the schools over to private management or shutting them down altogether.


Such policies have prompted waves of school closings in cities including Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. Across the nation, nearly 2,000 public schools were shuttered in 2010-11, federal data show. That’s up 60 percent from 10 years earlier.

To advocates, such restructuring is vital to the urgent work of improving public education. “You need bold moves and radical change,” said Eric Lerum, a vice president at StudentsFirst, a national education advocacy group.

But several studies, including a paper published in March in the Journal of Urban Economics, have found that displacing students through school closures can hurt them academically in the short term. The new research, conducted by the RAND Corp think tank, also found the closures didn’t boost student achievement in the long term, even among those who transferred into schools considered far better.

Backed by teachers unions, which stand to lose members with each school that goes under, activists in Atlanta and Newark, N.J., in Philadelphia, Detroit and Oakland, Calif., have stormed school board meetings and organized student walkouts to protest closures. Chicago activist Jitu Brown even organized a small but feisty march on Washington this fall with parents and students from cities as far-flung as Wichita, Kansas, and Eupora, Mississippi.


Brown, a burly man who roars with conviction, has focused the fight in Chicago on Dyett High, a sleek modernist structure of black steel and glass in the leafy, heavily African-American neighborhood known as Washington Park.

The district announced last year that Dyett would be phased out: It would accept no new students and would be shut down in 2015. Enrollment had been slipping for years, but officials said the decision was made solely because of Dyett’s sorry academic record.

“There are some schools that are so far gone that you cannot save them,” Jean-Claude Brizard, then the chief of Chicago schools, told the local CBS affiliate. “There’s got to be some hope left in the building for you to be able to turn a school around.”

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District spokeswoman Becky Carroll added in an interview that many of those fighting to save schools slated for closure simply didn’t understand how bad they really were because they had no frame of reference for comparison. “A lot of parents think their kids are going to a great school,” she said. “They don’t have the context to know what’s great and what’s not.”

Students at Dyett have no illusion they’re getting a top-flight education. They’ve seen the classes offered by schools in wealthier communities: Chinese, Latin and German, web design, forensic science, microeconomics. Because of its small size (enrollment has dipped below 300), Dyett gets less money from the district and offers just a bare-bones curriculum. Students cannot even take four full years of science or foreign language.

When O’Sha Dancy, a top student at Dyett, went to a recent college fair, he said recruiters told him that an “A” on his transcript wasn’t as impressive as a “C” from a better public school.

“I don’t believe they’re getting me prepared for college,” he said.


Yet O’Sha, who plays cornerback for the Dyett football team, remains devoted to his high school. He has spent hours attending school board hearings, participating in community meetings and working with his peers to draft an impassioned letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, asking for help saving Dyett. He even took his grandma to a sit-in outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office at City Hall.

District officials point out that many families in the area shun Dyett. In recent years, less than 30 percent of students living in the school’s attendance zone have enrolled, district figures show. The others have chosen other schools. And there’s clearly some apathy among those who have remained; just four adults showed up at a parent meeting the other night.

“That school should have been closed ... a long time ago,” said Tenesha Barner, who pulled her son out of Dyett last year because she found the teachers indifferent and the students unruly.

But Dyett’s fans say they see great potential in the school.

Students and parents spent the past two years drafting a plan to turn Dyett into a “school of green technology and leadership,” brimming with hands-on science and community service projects. They secured pledges of investment from local universities and the teachers union and talked about hiring a social worker and nurse. But the district had already decided to shut Dyett down.

Even without the planned investments, Dyett’s boosters say the school has strengths that don’t show up in standardized test scores. Dyett collaborates with the Chicago Botanic Garden on a year-round “youth farm” where students grow spinach, sweet peas and strawberries. There’s a brand-new athletic center, refurbished last year with corporate help. Tiles hand-painted by students form a mosaic of sparkling suns on one wall. The library, which had just seven books when Dyett was converted to a high school in 1999, has been steadily built up by community donations.

Pierre Williams, 16, is so loyal to Dyett that even though his family has moved out of the area, he continues to attend, taking a train and two busses to get there.

“I want to help keep my school strong,” he explained.


The passion for Dyett stems in part from fears over what might replace it.

In the past decade, the district has closed 15 schools in the largely African-American neighborhoods around Dyett. Nine have since reopened as charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.

By law, charter schools must select their students by blind lottery. But some have rules that make it tough for poor families with chaotic lives - including the many Dyett students who are homeless - to apply. Schools may require parents to buy uniforms and volunteer, for instance, or they may fine students for infractions such as arriving three minutes late. Once students enroll, they must follow strict behavior codes to keep their places; some charter high schools lose half of each incoming freshman class before graduation.

So while some charters get better test scores than Dyett, local activists don’t see them as a replacement for the come-one, come-all neighborhood school.

If Dyett were to turn into a charter, it would be “something else that our children can’t go to,” said Brown, the community activist.

Another concern: City data show charters often rely heavily on rookie teachers who aren’t fully certified or rated as highly qualified in their fields. These novices, often white, replace veteran unionized teachers, many of them African American. That troubles some parents who say they want their kids exposed to black role models.

Dyett students who don’t get into a selective school will be assigned to Phillips Academy, a public school that the district is trying to improve by hiring a private management team to run it. It’s been slow going - attendance has improved, but test scores have dropped far below those at Dyett. Fewer than 1 percent of students passed the state math test last year and just 8 percent passed the reading test.

Students say the prospect of being shuffled from a bad school to a worse one - or taking their chances with charters - makes them feel like pawns.

“The only possible reason for this repeated forced removal into new and strange schools is that, being poor and African American, we are viewed as expendable,” they wrote in the letter to Duncan, which included a formal civil-rights complaint to the U.S. Department of Education.

The federal government has not responded to the complaint, and Chicago Public Schools denies discrimination by race or income. But in response to widespread complaints about its school closing decisions, Chicago officials recently appointed a commission to study possible changes in policy.

In the meantime, the district has sought to reassure parents that it’s not giving up on any child.

Dyett has an energetic new principal, Charles Campbell, who says the district recently allocated $500,000 for him to buy new textbooks, hire a second guidance counselor and buy online programs to tutor students in math and reading (though the software runs slowly on the old computers).

Campbell tells his staff and students that just because Dyett failed in the past doesn’t mean its last two years must be failures, too.

“We screwed up. I got that,” Campbell said. “Let’s not keep screwing up.”

Reporting by James B. Kelleher in Chicago and Stephanie Simon in Boston; editing by Lee Aitken and Prudence Crowther