What a School Means

“Why do people fight for schools like Dyett? Why did the Coalition continue to fight even after those in power assured them of their own victory? Because it was never just about Dyett. A fight for a school is never just about a school. A school means the potential for stability in an unstable world, the potential for agency in the face of the powerlessness, the enactment of one’s own dreams and visions for one’s own children. Because whether you’re in Detriot or Austin or Louisiana or Chicago, you want to feel that your school is your school. That you have some say in the matter, that your voice can make a difference. You want to feel that the rules are fair, not that you’re playing a shell game. You want to feel like a citizen. So you fight.”[1]

The quote above is from Eve L. Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, her book is the basis of my project. It was an indispensable asset in learning about a topic I had no knowledge of the school closures in Bronzeville, a community in the city’s majority black South Side. In Ghosts Ewing explores what it means to fight for a school deemed a failure by the State and the effects of policy on a community and the people who make it, such as overcrowded schools, gang violence, and inaccessibility for disabled students. Ghosts and the research that went into it shows that these school closings are not just about school closings but are tied to a legacy of racism against black people in Chicago and the top down policies that have specifically targeted them. This top down approach is especially harmful in the case of schooling in Chicago because the head of Chicago Public Schools is not an elected position, it is one appointed directly by the mayor. This is why it is important to know the history of Bronzeville in conjunction of its schools because problems with housing become problems with schooling which then adds to the problem of a lack of growth and leads to displacement. Chicago is a city that’s frequently cited as one of the most persistently segregated places in the USA, an expansive city built on the foundation of housing discrimination and violence.[2] The story of Bronzeville isn’t new. The stability of the community change with the broader tide of social forces affecting black urban communities around the USA — segregation, housing policy, school policy, and economic trends — what sociologist William J. Wilson calls, “cycles of deprivation.”[3] What roles do race, power, and history play into what was happening in Chicago? Beyond the numbers, maps, and graphs, who were the teachers, students, and communities, who would be affected by the decision to close so many schools? After all, numbers are not people.

A National policy which plays into this was the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), passed Congress in 2001 and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on Jan. 8, 2002. It is the name for, at the time, the most recent update to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The NCLB law was grown out of concern that the American education system was no longer internationally competitive, increased the federal role in holding schools responsible for the academic progress of all students.[4] States were required to bring all students to the “proficient level” on state tests by the 2013–14 school year, although each state got to decide, individually, just what “proficiency” should look like, and which tests to use.[5] However, by 2010, it was clear that many schools were not going to meet NCLB’s achievement targets.[6] To alleviate this, in 2011, the Obama administration offered states a reprieve from many of the law’s mandates through a series of waivers.[7] Waiver states would no longer have to aim toward the (now past) 2013–14 deadline for getting all students to proficiency, or offer public school choice or tutoring for schools that miss achievement targets.[8] In exchange, states had to agree to set standards aimed at preparing students for higher education and the workforce. Waiver states could either choose the Common Core State Standards or get their higher education institutions to certify that their standards are rigorous enough.[9] This means that the responsibility of a student’s success is no longer a Federal concern. Even before the waivers granted there was no consensus to what proficiency meant nationwide. Still the mandate of NCLB was clear: get American education to a more prestigious level in the eyes of the world as efficiently as possible. This is the Neo-liberalization of education.

While neoliberalism is a broad idea that takes many forms in different contexts, in the context of public education it is a set of ideals that believes efficiency is an important goal in managing schools and public education systems.[10] It is in this belief that the best way to achieve such efficiency is to allow schools to exist and function within a free market system based on competition. In this system the best schools will succeed, and the worst ones will be driven to improve or shut down.[11] In this system private entities like for profit companies and corporations are allowed to participate freely in this marketplace and are better at delivering services than public entities such as the government and the success of individuals should also be allowed to play out within the free market, with the assumption that the most deserving will succeed by working hard and navigating the system.[12] Through a neoliberal lens, “rather than citizens’, with rights, people are consumers of services. People are ‘empowered’ by taking advantage of opportunities in the market.”[13] It is necessary to ask who has the privilege of choice, who benefits and who suffers from this system? Efficiency leaves plenty on the floor. Who gets left there and who assumptions does neoliberalism fail to account for?

The assumptions based in efficiency fail to account for some basic realities in the public school system. First, any enterprise dealing with the care and nurturing of children will be inefficient at times and aspiring for efficiency often requires throwing things such as care, patience, and flexibility aside.[14] Second, although a marketplace is premised on “winners” and “losers” competing against each other, the “consumers” in this case — parents and children — are not operating on a level playing field.[15] Children who enter a school system might face poverty, homelessness, hunger, health issues, in addition to their differences in identity — race, gender, disability, language practices, and everything else that goes into the multitudes of identity.[16] Public schools must account for all of these differences, which shape the standardized outcomes they are measured on.[17] This goes directly into the third problem: neoliberalism pushes schools to focus on the “winners”, the exceptional students who are successful within these limited metrics, and to forget about students who might bring inefficiencies.[18]

Through this lens we see schools that are nearly identical being forced to compete against each other instead of uniting in their shared educational goals.[19] We see them judged on how “efficient” they are and how well they meet quantifiable metrics, with officials presenting a case how one school is superior to another based on arbitrary metrics.[20] We can explicitly see the reality of the students these schools serve and their challenges brought on by racism, multigenerational injustices, housing insecurity, and poverty being ignored in a calculation of their future.[21] There is a willful ignorance at play here, an ignorance of a history of explicit racism as well as a failure to critically examine the extension of that history into the present.[22] This is a system that fails to take responsibility for creating conditions of that social instability, preferring to act as if it’s all a matter of individuals’ pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and teachers’ needing to work harder.[23]

Chicago public schools have been framed in the USA’s imagination as, at best, charity cases that deserve sympathy; at worst they are a malignant force to be ignored if you can or put out of its misery altogether if you can make something better.[24] In this sense Chicago is like many other urban school districts that primarily serve students of colour, they are treated with pity and contempt.[25] Thus in 2013, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced an unheard of amount of school closures, maybe he was expecting mass public approval, the city and school district had a $1 billion deficit, enrollment had dropped in the district, and many of the schools slated for closure had long records of low test scores.[26] 330 schools were on the first list of Chicago Public Schools for closure, the number went down to 129 before reaching a final 54.[27] Of those 54, 49 were slated to be closed by the end of the 2012–13 school year and the students attending those schools were reassigned seats in other schools nearby.[28] In 2013, 4 schools were slated for closure and since 1999 the community has seen 16 schools closed or entered into the “turnaround” process — this is when all faculty and staff are fired and the school is then handled by a third party to hire new staff.[29] Whatever response Emanuel and his schools CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett were expecting, they were met with an uproar of disapproval and resistance.[30] Emanuel did not budge, on the day of the closures, his office released a statement, “I know this is incredibly difficult, but I firmly believe the most important thing we can do as a city is provide the next generation with a brighter future.”[31] However, if schools were so terrible, why did people fight for them so adamantly and what led Bronzeville to these school closures, for that we must examine the historical context of Bronzeville.

In 1900 the city of Chicago was home to about 30,000 black people or about 1.8% of the total population.[32] Faced with segregation, as well as exclusion and being ignored by the city’s businesses, the residents congregated in one area, as did most other citizens of Chicago, making a city of neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves.[33] During WWI, hundreds of thousands of African Americans fled northward in search of industrial employment and in flight from the social and political persecution of the South, as a result Chicago’s black population grew by 3.6 times from it was two decades earlier.[34] Notably, these residents did not disperse across the city like their European counterparts, they remained in one place this was because African Americans feared racial violence.[35] From 1917 -1921, 58 bombs struck the homes of black residents, of bankers who gave them mortgages, or of real estate agents who sold them property.[36] These bombings were part of “a general scheme to close the channels through which the invasion [black people] proceeded.”[37] In addition to physical violence, restrictive covenants — private agreements between property owners and real estate agents that homes were not be sold to or occupied by black people — made it near impossible for African Americans to find housing in other parts of the city.[38] One member of the Chicago Real Estate Board called restrictive covenants “a marvelous delicately-woven chain armour…[excluding] any member of a race not Caucasian.”[39] Even though this fence was created and maintained through force, fear, and discrimination, it also allowed the necessity of economic, political, and creative vitality for black Chicagoans.[40] Bronzeville residents responded to white supremacy by shaping their space in their own image. Bronzeville became a semiautonomous residential and business district. Sociologist George Lipsitz refers to this resilient reframing as part of a “black spatial imaginary,” a way of understanding the physical world through the “socially shared understanding of the importance of public space as well as its power to create new opportunities and life chances.”[41]

A major downside of this relative economic autonomy of Bronzeville left the community vulnerable to the financial fortunes of its community members, the Great Depression destroyed the economic prospects of many black people in Bronzeville, while during this time white owned businesses capitalized on their misfortunes.[42] The other large problem looming over Bronzeville was housing, increased population after WWII combined with restrictions of movement into other parts of Chicago, left Bronzeville densely populated.[43] Property owners began splitting apartments up into single rooms with a single hot plate as an alternative to a kitchen and forced as many people as possible into these units.[44] By 1940, Bronzeville’s population was over 150,000, sardined into an area about three square miles.[45] The city would be forced to act on two fronts: school and housing. This was a problem that the city did not seem too interested in fixing and rather put its focus on keeping schools and communities segregated and it is a problem to this day. The bare minimum the city did implement to fix these problems the Chicago Housing Authority built high rise public housing apartments, even though locals in the community pushed for row houses, the concentration of children in Bronzeville rose dramatically during this time and the city’s segregated school system kept them from going anywhere else in the city for their schooling.[46] The justification for this was that the black residents of Bronzeville should appreciate all they have received and how much better their lives were compared to other black people in the Southern USA.[47] As projects went up, so did the number of children, it is easier to find housing for large or growing families through public housing than the private market, this gave rise to the number of children going to the area’s schools — and in the subsequent years, as projects were left to ruin, so did school enrollment in the area, which leads to school populations dropping and the belief that they are being underutilized and that is used as an excuse for them to close.[48] This is a clear example of the CPS saying that it did not mind that subpar conditions for black students were fine and their main goal was to keep schools and communities segregated.[49]

All of this culminated in 1999 when Mayor Richard M. Daley negotiated with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to take back control of CHA, which was seized by the federal government in 1996.[50] Under new supervision HUD agreed that the CHA would demolish close to 22,000 units, which included all of the high rises and build or renovate an additional 25,000 units over a 10 year span, costing $1.56 billion.[51] The Plan was it was dubbed, in theory granted a “right of return” to close to 26,000 households, promising the families displaced by the demolition could be granted space in a new or redeveloped residences or given affordable housing vouchers, as of March 2010, fewer than half of these households remained in the system and the families that did return had to meet a list of eligibility requirements to stay within the CHA system such as: working 30 hours a week, they have adequate child care, a good credit rating, and be drug screened and have background checks.[52] From 1990 to 1995, Bronzeville lost 272 children, five years after that the number ballooned to 6000 and school enrollment fell, the Plan and subsequent demolition of high rises changed the fabric of Bronzeville forever.[53] The history of Bronzeville is one of environmental racism, an entire area of a city condemned without support and little input heard from its community members and still people refuse to leave or die because this is their home and they will fight for their home.

The specific school Ewing examines in Bronzeville is William H. Dyett High School. Dyett is a clear representation of the greater school landscape in Chicago whose impending closure inspired community members to resist and demand their community not be ignored. The history of the man whom the school is named after Dyett should not be ignored because when a local hero gets a school named after them, it becomes a symbol for the entire community, and it is imperative these specific types of history are not forgotten. Dyett is also proof that if we do not preserve our own stories they will be forgotten, this is how education becomes a part of liberation, when it gives people a language to explain their experiences and provides them context of their place in the world and as we see in the next paragraph Dyett believed in these things as well.

Dyett is named after Walter Henri Dyett, a musician and educator, who began working and teaching in Bronzeville in 1931.[54] Dyett taught with intention and a focus on the pedagogical principles he brought to his work, which he explained in detail in his 1942 master’s thesis for the Chicago Musical College, in which he explored methods for teaching the fundamentals of rhythm to high school students and argued that music education could help students develop joy and discipline.[55] Dyett believed, “The student learns from experience and these experiences must be enjoyable ones if the proper interest necessary for this learning is to be motivated and sustained.”[56] In a 1969 letter to the musicians’ union in celebration of Music Appreciation week, Dyett reaffirmed his belief of the importance of such disciplined determination for a person to do their best work, “The world today calls for dreaming possibilities and developing possibilities into live realities and actualities. Creativity development comes by: becoming receptive to ideas — welcoming new ideas; by being experimental…by accepting the opportunity to do more; by asking how can I do more — how can I improve the quality of my performance — how can I do better?”[57] These are the principles that serve as the core values of the school that would become the school named after him.[58] The decision to name a school after Dyett, a local hero who dedicated his life to young people not on a national nor global scale but in a specific pocket of a city, someone who shared his passion, care, and knowledge with an entire generation of students, isn’t this what all teachers set out to do?[59] So by naming a school after him, it was in a way a celebration of the entire community as a whole.[60] The official district narrative would like you believe that underutilization is something that just happens but we know better.

In 2000, CPS introduced plans to convert Dr. Martin Luther King High school, a mile away from Dyett, into a college prep school, with a selective admissions system based on test scores and grades rather than open enrollment.[61] King would receive a multimillion dollar renovation, and students from all over the city would be able to attend, if they met the new admission requirements of course.[62] The change of King was part of CPS’s creation of a suite of “selective enrollment” schools designed to attract the top academic and socioeconomic tier of the city’s high school students through an elite curriculum and high-end facilities.[63] This new admissions requirement meant that the students who could not get back in would need a new school to go to and so Dyett was changed from a junior high school to a high school to accommodate the leftover students from the area.[64] The development of selective enrollment schools was just one piece of the puzzle over the next decade that the CPS would frame as “choice.”[65] Students would no longer be restricted to the schools in their immediate community, instead new schools appeared or were converted across the South Side, with new purposes and admission requirements: charter schools, a military academy, a technology school, an international school, and others now visible on the horizon.[66] This meant to be viewed as a “portfolio” of options for parents to choose from and follows the nationwide trend of emphasizing education as a marketplace of ideas over a focus on community.[67] While more options of choice seems like a good idea, researchers have documented that “choice” in most cases leaves black families at a disadvantage.[68] Black parents’ ability to choose is hamstrung by limited access to transportation, information, and time, leaving them at an extreme disadvantage in a supposedly fair and open marketplace.[69] This shift of schools went hand-in-hand with a broader change to the city of Chicago, in an attempt to claim its place as a “world class” urban center, it was dead set on transforming its neighborhoods to make them more attractive to white residents at the expense of a displaced black population.[70] Meanwhile, schools down the street bore the consequences, by 2011 only 19% of the students within Dyett’s attendance area were enrolled in the school and by November 30th 2011, parents of Dyett students received a letter from CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard informing them that, “For far too long, Dyett High School has been one of the schools not meeting the needs of its students. Over the last few years, Dyett has been a chronically underperforming school with a graduation rate that is far below that of other schools in the area and is among the lowest academic scoring schools in the district. This is why we are proposing today, after a very lengthy and thoughtful process, to phase-out Dyett.”[71] The letter goes on to say that Dyett would continue phasing out one grade every year, with the closure to be done by 2014–2015.[72]

In 2013 several groups came together and formed the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett, they developed a plan to keep Dyett open, and submitted it to new CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. They proposed that Dyett be a high school with a focus on “global leadership and green technology,” highlighting environmental sustainability, social justice, and 21st century careers, and to be known as Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.[73] This plan was an extension of a project already in the works before the announcement of Dyett’s phaseout: a plan for a “Bronzeville Global Achievers Village” that would align Dyett with local elementary schools.[74] This plan was a direct response to create a sense of stability and solidarity within the community that was hit by years of school closures.[75] At the end of it all CPS announced that the school would reopen and become an open-enrollment arts high school, there was no mention of the Coalition’s plan in the press release at all, it was treated as if had never happened at all.[76] Another way to make it seem as if things just happen and not something that people fight against and what they fight for.

Judith Butler argues that when a community faces the loss of a place, it can become so unbearable that it becomes stitched into the fabric of the community and a part of its legacy, “where community does not overcome the loss, where the community cannot overcome the loss without losing the very sense of itself as community.”[77] Understanding death and mourning as they relate not to the people we love, but to places where we loved them, has its own type of gravity, especially in a time of state sanctioned violence against black people such as police violence and mass incarceration are in the spotlight because of social media.[78] As the people in Bronzeville know and understand there is a difference between the death of a school and a person at the hands of the state are not the same thing but are they different?[79] The people in Bronzeville know and understand that a school is more than a school. A school is a place of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city.[80] A school is a safe place to be, a place to discover family, and to make a home away from home.[81] So when they come for your school, they are really coming for you and once you are gone, they want you forgotten.[82] This is how we fight back against that erasure. I have learned a lot from this project, and I hope that whoever reads this does too and then goes tell someone else about it.

[1] Eve L. Ewing, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 47.

[2] Douglas S. Massey, American Apartheid : Housing Segregation and Persistent Urban Poverty (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University, 1994), 72.

[3] W. J. Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged (USA: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 3.

[4] Klein, A. (2015, April 10). No Child Left Behind: An Overview. Education Week. Retrieved July 17th, 2019 from https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/no-child-left-behind-overview-definition-summary.html

[5] Klein, retrieved July 17th, 2019.

[6] Klein, retrieved July 17th, 2019.

[7] Klein, retrieved July 17th, 2019.

[8] Klein, retrieved July 17th, 2019.

[9] Klein, retrieved July 17th, 2019.

[10] Ewing, 122.

[11] Ewing, 122.

[12] Ewing, 122.

[13] Ewing, 122.

[14] Ewing, 122.

[15] Ewing, 122.

[16] Ewing, 122.

[17] Ewing, 123.

[18] Ewing, 123.

[19] Ewing, 123.

[20] Ewing, 123.

[21] Ewing, 123.

[22] Ewing, 123.

[23] Ewing, 123.

[24] Ewing, 2.

[25] Ewing, 2.

[26] Ewing, 2.

[27] Ewing 2.

[28] Ewing, 2.

[29] Ewing, 6.

[30] Ewing, 2.

[31] Ewing, 2.

[32] Ewing, 60.

[33] Ewing, 60.

[34] Ewing, 60.

[35] Ewing, 61.

[36] Ewing, 61.

[37] “The Negro in Chicago; a Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot : Chicago Commission on Race Relations : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming,” Internet Archive, , accessed July 17, 2019, https://archive.org/details/negroinchicagost00chic/page/122.

[38] Ewing, 64.

[39] Ewing, 64.

[40] Ewing, 65.

[41] Ewing, 66.

[42] Ewing, 66.

[43] Ewing, 66.

[44] Ewing, 66.

[45] Ewing, 67.

[46] Ewing, 84.

[47] Ewing, 76.

[48] Ewing, 84.

[49] Ewing, 79.

[50] Ewing, 86.

[51] Ewing, 86.

[52] Ewing, 87.

[53] Ewing, 87–89.

[54] Ewing, 18.

[55] Ewing, 19.

[56] Ewing, 19.

[57] Ewing, 20.

[58] Ewing, 20.

[59] Ewing, 21.

[60] Ewing, 21.

[61] Ewing, 22.

[62] Ewing, 22.

[63] Ewing, 22.

[64] Ewing, 22.

[65] Ewing, 23.

[66] Ewing, 23.

[67] Ewing, 23.

[68] Ewing, 23.

[69] Mary Pattillo, “Everyday Politics Of School Choice In The Black Community,” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 12, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 41, doi:10.1017/s1742058x15000016.

[70] Pauline Lipman and Nathan Haines, “From Accountability to Privatization and African American Exclusion,” Educational Policy 21, no. 3 (2007): , doi:10.1177/0895904806297734.

[71] Ewing, 24.

[72] Ewing, 25.

[73] Ewing, 27.

[74] Ewing, 27.

[75] Ewing, 27.

[76] Ewing, 46.

[77] Judith Butler, “After, Loss, What Then?” Afterword. In Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, 468.

[78] Ewing, 155.

[79] Ewing, 155.

[80] Ewing, 155.

[81] Ewing, 155.

[82] Ewing, 156.



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