Education Department official hears Dyett complaints

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With the U.S. Department of Education Deputy Secretary Peter Cunningham in the audience listening and taking notes, about 70 people gathered Friday night to repeat the story of how Dyett High School was starved of resources before CPS officials announced they were going to phase it out.

In July, local activists, parents and students, joined with 14 other cities that are also experiencing school closings, to file civil right complaints and ask for a moratorium on these actions. Officials from the Education Department are investigating the complaints and agreed to a listening tour, called a Grassroots Impact Tour, in all the cities involved.

However, they would not agree to issue a moratorium.

Cunningham said he was in town and decided he would kick off the listening tour. The hearing took place in a room at a park district building in Kenwood.

He and activists acknowledged the irony of Cunningham and the federal education department responding to grievances about school closings.

Cunningham and his boss Arne Duncan ran CPS for eight years prior to going to Washington D.C. They were arguably the architects of the policies that entail opening charter schools and closing those neighborhood schools considered to be failing. Dozens of schools were closed during Duncan’s tenure.

“We believe when there are chronically under-performing schools, this sometimes has to happen,” Cunningham said after the meeting. “Things have to change and it is hard to drive change.”

Cunningham said he could not speak to why or if the district disinvested in Dyett before labeling it failing and slating it to be phased out. With 600 schools in the system, he said he did not remember the specifics of Dyett.

Though the education department still encourages the policies that lead to school closings, Cunningham said leaders want to hear how it is impacting communities.

“We are always open to feedback, to listen and learn,” he said.

After the meeting, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization Activist Jitu Brown said he was under no illusion that the federal department of education would offer a remedy for the situation. In addition to the civil rights complaints and the listening tours, activists are planning to organize direct action.

“Do we trust them?” Brown said, referring to Department of Education officials. “Absolutely not. It is the same lyrics, different music.”

As they have since the phase out was announced in December, students and others recounted how, during the 2000s, Dyett seemed to be on the right track. Alumni said they were proud that their small school had the highest gains in students enrolling in college.

The school also had seen a big drop in the number of students being arrested and suspended. Jasmine Valentine, who graduated in 2009, said she is shocked by the current lack of resources at the school.

She said the restorative justice program at Dyett was so good that she trained people in other schools. “The restorative justice program was proof that our community cares about our school,” Valentine said.

UIC Professor Pauline Lipman presented a chart that compared course offerings last year at Northside College Prep, Lakeview and Dyett high school. In English, for example, Northside had more than 20 classes, including two Advanced Placement classes.  Lakeview High School had eight classes, including one AP. Dyett had six classes and no AP classes in any subject.

Rising Dyett Junior Parish Brown said he wants to have the opportunity to take a variety of classes, especially those that would help him prepare for the ACT. He is one of the top students in his class.

“I feel like I am going into my junior year blindfolded,” he said.