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Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side

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“Failing schools. Underprivileged schools. Just plain bad schools.”

That’s how Eve L. Ewing opens Ghosts in the Schoolyard: describing Chicago Public Schools from the outside. The way politicians and pundits and parents of kids who attend other schools talk about them, with a mix of pity and contempt.

But Ewing knows Chicago Public Schools from the inside: as a student, then a teacher, and now a scholar who studies them. And that perspective has shown her that public schools are not buildings full of failures—they’re an integral part of their neighborhoods, at the heart of their communities, storehouses of history and memory that bring people together.

Never was that role more apparent than in 2013 when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced an unprecedented wave of school closings. Pitched simultaneously as a solution to a budget problem, a response to declining enrollments, and a chance to purge bad schools that were dragging down the whole system, the plan was met with a roar of protest from parents, students, and teachers. But if these schools were so bad, why did people care so much about keeping them open, to the point that some would even go on a hunger strike?

Ewing’s answer begins with a story of systemic racism, inequality, bad faith, and distrust that stretches deep into Chicago history. Rooting her exploration in the historic African American neighborhood of Bronzeville, Ewing reveals that this issue is about much more than just schools. Black communities see the closing of their schools—schools that are certainly less than perfect but that are theirs—as one more in a long line of racist policies. The fight to keep them open is yet another front in the ongoing struggle of black people in America to build successful lives and achieve true self-determination.

ISBN-13: 9780226526164

Media Type: Paperback(First Edition)

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Publication Date: 04-10-2020

Pages: 240

Product Dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

Eve L. Ewing is assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. She is the author of Electric Arches, and her work has appeared in the New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, Washington Post, and many other venues. She was born in Chicago, where she still lives.

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What a School Means

Cause everybody dies in the summer / wanna say your goodbyes, tell 'em while it's spring / I heard everybody's dying in the summer / so pray to God for a little more spring.

— Chance the Rapper, "Pusha Man (Paranoia)"

And finally, need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil?

— W. E. B. Du Bois

For an August day in Chicago the weather is unseasonably cool, and many of the people sitting in the park have blankets draped over their laps or around their shoulders. In many ways this looks like any family gathering in Washington Park — older faces and younger faces in a circle of fabric lawn chairs and coolers, chatting amiably. But rather than pop, picnic food, or snacks, many of the coolers are filled with infused water or high-nutrient juices. Thermoses of hot broth are propped against a tree. And there are people here you wouldn't see at a family picnic: visitors from across the city, reporters and photographers from across the country. Worried nurses flit from person to person. No music is playing. Sometimes folks laugh and joke cheerfully; other times they look off into space, exhausted.

Behind it all a tremendous black building looms, its windows dark. And that is the reason these people are here — not for any family reunion or summer gathering, but in the name of this shuttered building, Walter H. Dyett High School. They are not picnickers, they are hunger strikers. And they are putting their lives on the line in hopes of seeing their vision for this school become reality.

* * *

Why do people fight for schools like this? While the Dyett hunger strike would rise to public prominence as one of the most visible examples of community members fighting to save a school, it is hardly the only one. Across the country, school stakeholders who are culturally and geographically very different have waged notably similar battles to get their schools off district chopping blocks. In Detroit in 2017, hundreds of parents and community members rallied in front of the state of Michigan's offices to protest the closing of schools that others referred to as "consistently failing" and "the worst of the worst." In Shreveport, Louisiana, in 2011, parents held meetings and circulated a petition to save Blanchard Elementary, which the district called "small," "lacking," and "old." In Austin, Texas, in 2016, parents organized high turnouts at community meetings and picketed to fight the district's closure of ten schools it said were in poor physical condition and underenrolled. In Dyett's case the media declared that "by just about any definition [the school] has failed."

To outside observers — concerned neighbors and friends, informed citizens reading about education issues in the news or seeing these protests on television — it may be hard to reconcile these characterizations. If the schools are small, the worst, lacking, and so on, why is anyone fighting for them? This question may be amplified by the image of public schools we see and hear in the media, from A Nation at Risk to Dangerous Minds. As someone who attended public schools and later taught in one, I can't count how many times a stranger remarked to me in casual conversation that I was an "angel" or a "saint" because public schools were "just so bad," with no clear reasoning about why or in what way.

This chapter tells the story of one group of people fighting to keep a school open — and, moreover, to see it reflect their vision for their community and their children's education. We see that this community's choice to resist a school's being characterized as "failing" is in fact about much more than the school itself: it is about citizenship and participation, about justice and injustice, and about resisting people in power who want to transform a community at the expense of the people who live there.

The Dyett Tradition

So much of black life in Chicago happens in Washington Park that if you are African American, even if you are from the West Side or (like me) the North Side, it is hard not to find yourself there at least once each summer. The African Festival of the Arts, the Bud Billiken Parade, and family barbecues all find a home in the massive park. Sitting at the southern edge of Bronzeville, it covers 367 acres landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect most famous for his design of New York City's Central Park. At the northern end of the park, facing Fifty-First Street, a low building of black glass looks out over a broad expanse of grass. In summer 2015 the building is empty, but the flag still flies above it. The sign still says "Welcome to Walter H. Dyett High School" in black against a yellow background, bright against the backdrop of the dark building and Chicago's more often than not gray weather. But no doors are open. No teenagers gather to talk or to run, to flirt or gossip or tease, to play football or scramble for forgotten homework or do the things teenagers do. Walter H. Dyett High School is closed.

Not many schools are named after teachers, so it is notable that this building is as much a living monument to Walter H. Dyett as it is an educational institution. It is also notable that this man, arguably the most renowned and respected educator ever to emerge from Bronzeville — a community famous for its musical venues and figures — was a bandleader and music teacher.

Walter Henri Dyett was born in 1901 in Saint Joseph, Missouri. His mother was a pianist and soprano vocalist, and his father was a pastor in the AME church. Dyett began his musical life as a violinist after his family moved to California; as a student at Pasadena High School, he became concertmaster of the orchestra and also played clarinet, bassoon, and drums. After graduating in 1917, he attended the University of California at Berkeley, where he was first violinist in the school's symphony orchestra while he completed his premed studies. In 1921 Dyett received a scholarship to the Illinois School of Medicine and moved back to Chicago to pursue his studies. However, his mother and sister, already living there, needed financial help, and he took on work as a musician to support his family. In a curriculum vitae dating from 1960, Dyett described the early days of this work: "One year violinist in Erskine Tate's Vendome Theatre Orchestra playing the silent pictures and stage presentations along with Louis Armstrong and other now internationally known musicians. Transferred to orchestra leader in the Pickford Theatre — one of the Vendome chain — and remained until talking pictures came in and orchestras went out." He next became youth music director at a church, then a private teacher of violin and music theory. Finally, in 1931 Dyett began the work for which he would become beloved: he became a music teacher at Phillips High School in Bronzeville. When Phillips was relocated in 1936 and renamed Du Sable High School (after the city's founder, the Haitian Jean Baptiste Point du Sable), Dyett went along to the new school.

Tribute concerts, memorials, and articles about Dyett often cite his influence on the Bronzeville musical legends who were his students, such as Von Freeman and Nat King Cole. But while these figures loom large in history, they were far outnumbered by the thousands of average Bronzeville teenagers who discovered a love of music through his schoolwide concerts and community initiatives during his thirty-eight years as a teacher (fig. 1).

Dyett was intentional about the pedagogical principles he brought to his work. He explained them in detail in his 1942 master's thesis for the Chicago Musical College, which explored methods for teaching the fundamentals of rhythm to high school students and argued that music education could help students develop joy and discipline. "The student learns from experience," Dyett argued, "and these experiences must be enjoyable ones if the proper interest necessary for this learning is to be motivated and sustained." In another chapter he wrote, "If, in our music classes, we can kindle a spark which will inspire the students to be satisfied with only the best work that they are capable of performing, this development will surely be carried over into whatever field of endeavor they may choose for a vocation." In a 1969 letter to the musicians' union celebrating Music Appreciation Week, Dyett echoed the importance of such disciplined determination to do one's best work: "The world today calls for dreaming possibilities and developing these 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?"

These principles were to serve as the core of the school that would bear Dyett's name — a middle school with the motto "develops individuality, encourages responsibility, and provides opportunity."

When Walter H. Dyett Middle School was dedicated in 1975, the program reflected the scope of Dyett's influence on his students:

Few musicians, living or dead, have brought music into the lives of so many young people and made them a part of the world's music. ... He was the complete musician: an artist who could teach, a musician's musician, a student's inspiration, able tutor, and friend. ... [H]e personally taught or supervised the music education of some 20,000 young people. He brought music appreciation and serious awareness of good music to another half million youth through his activities as a conductor of bands and orchestras in school assemblies and public programs and concerts. ... Dyett was well known for his practice of sharing his baton and podium with promising young musicians and many of them are continuing the "Dyett tradition," as they enrich school systems in Chicago and elsewhere as music educators, or in the music profession as performers or entertainers.

The decision to name a school after Dyett — a local titan who dedicated his life to young people not on a citywide or national stage but in one specific community, someone who in sharing his passion and his care with generations of students did what all teachers set out to do — appears to be a tacit way of celebrating the community itself. It is a way of saying that a life lived in the service of Bronzeville is a notable life, and that the legacy of someone so dedicated to the community is worth memorializing with something important. Dyett, like many all over the intensely segregated city, was an all-black school, and its daily social happenings took place within what renowned sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois called "the Veil" — the border of an all-black world. In a society that for centuries has drawn absolute boundaries between black people and white people — social boundaries, legal boundaries, economic boundaries, physical boundaries — black social life under conditions of segregation has developed its own reason and rhythm. The Veil, derived as it is from the painful constraints of slavery and Jim Crow and their aftermath, can be cruel. But behind the Veil, Walter H. Dyett, a man whose life could have been seen as ordinary, was honored as a hero.

"Choice" and Change

In 2000, Dyett Middle School faced a major upheaval. CPS introduced plans to convert Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. High School, a little more than a mile away, into a college preparatory school, with a selective admissions system based on test scores and grades rather than open enrollment. King would receive a multimillion dollar renovation, and students from all over the city would be able to attend — if they could meet the stringent admissions requirements. The move was part of CPS's creation of a suite of "selective enrollment" schools designed to attract the top academic (and top socioeconomic) tier of the city's high school students through a rigorous curriculum and high-end facilities. The transition also meant that if their test scores did not make them eligible to attend the new, selective King, students in the area would need a new place to go — so Dyett would be changed from a middle school to a high school. Neighborhood residents were not happy with this plan. One parent of a King student expressed frustration that the $20 million to be invested in the school's renovation was nowhere to be found when the school's enrollment was based on neighborhood attendance boundaries. Another community member lamented that young people in the area would be "shipped out of their neighborhood in order to turn King into a magnet school," suggesting that this ostensibly public school would no longer be public at all:

If something is public, then ain't I the public? Aren't these kids who are being put out of King High School and going over there to Dyett [High School], [which is like] a factory, aren't they part of the public? How can you have a public school and then say everybody in the public can't go to it? That's what I think. It's a bunch of hogwash. ... You don't make no magnet school with my money. I did not tell you to do that, and I don't want King to be a private school in my neighborhood. If it's public, I want you to do the best that the public can get right over there for the people in this community.

The development of selective enrollment schools was just one piece of what would, over the following decade, become an expansion of "choice" within CPS. No longer would students necessarily attend the schools in their immediate areas, as they had done for generations. Instead, new schools appeared or were converted across the South Side, with varying purposes and admissions policies: several charter schools, a military academy, a technology school, an international school, and others now dotted the landscape. This evolution of the district into a "portfolio" of options parents are expected to choose among was part of a nationwide trend that deemphasized local or community-based schools in favor of thinking of each city as a marketplace of options. While choosing the best option from a menu of possibilities is appealing in theory, researchers have documented that in practice the "choice" model often leaves black families at a disadvantage. Black parents' ability to truly choose may be hindered by limited access to transportation, information, and time, leaving them on the losing end of a supposedly fair marketplace. Further, this shift in Chicago occurred in tandem with a broader conversation about a city in flux — a city that, in order to claim a place as a "world class" urban center, was dead set on transforming its neighborhoods to make them more attractive to white residents at the expense of a displaced black populace.

Meanwhile the school "right over there" languished. While enrollment at Dyett varied over the decade, its student numbers eventually began to decline. By 2011 only 19 percent of the students within Dyett's attendance area were enrolled in the school. Most families in the neighborhood were no longer choosing Dyett, opting to send their children elsewhere (fig. 2).

On November 30, 2011, parents of Dyett students received a letter from CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. It began,

Dear Parent or Guardian:

As Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), nothing is more important to me than making sure your child is getting access to a high quality education. My team is dedicated to ensuring that every child in every community can be successful in the classroom and graduate ready for college and career — which is why I am writing to you today.

There are too many schools in Chicago failing our children. Across the District, only 7.9% of 11th graders last year tested ready for college, while achievement gaps for African American and Latino students remain in the high double-digits. As adults, we all have a responsibility to make sure that we are putting the academic needs of our children before all else. To do so requires some very difficult but necessary choices to boost the academic achievement of our kids.

For too long, Dyett High School (Dyett) 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 its 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. This means that current ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade students would continue to attend Dyett, but the school would not enroll new students next school year.


Excerpted from "Ghosts in the Schoolyard"
by .
Copyright © 2018 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Terms and People

1 What a School Means
2 City of Losses
3 Dueling Realities
4 Mourning
Conclusion: An Open Door

Appendix: Methodological and Theoretical Notes