The historic closing of 49 elementary schools in Chicago left many parents bitter and feeling left out as they try to get involved in new schools. Yet parent engagement is essential for school improvement, and principals are faced with the challenge of building trust at schools that scored poorly on surveys of parent involvement.
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At Dyett, will phase-out lead to early closure?
Closing high schools in Chicago has historically resulted in unrest in the receiving schools and officials being blamed for putting students at-risk for danger and violence. So this year, CPS leadership decided they would take another approach. Rather than shut the doors immediately, they would phase-out two high schools, Crane on the West Side and Dyett on the South Side in Washington Park. Officials said that this way, only 9th-graders, who had not yet developed an allegiance to Crane or Dyett, would be assigned to new schools.
CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard repeatedly promised that the students who completed their sophomore, junior and senior years at the schools would be “fully supported.” The board approved the phasing out of Dyett and Crane, along with other closings and turnarounds, at the February Board meeting.
Now, a group of students and teachers from Dyett are questioning whether CPS leaders really expected their school to survive another three years. They say students are being encouraged to go elsewhere and they accuse the district of withholding resources, leaving those students who are still there in a precarious position. CPS denies the accusations.
Even so, Dyett, which started this year at an already-tiny 318 students, is down by 37 students. Crane, which started at 638 students, is down 100, according to CPS officials.
The enrollment loss raises a larger question: Is the idea of a phase-out legitimate? In the past, schools being phased out have closed ahead of schedule. This year, two schools that weren’t supposed to close until the 2015 school year are being shut down, as their enrollment dwindled. Lathrop Elementary has just 83 students left, and Reed Elementary has just 44.
Melody Palmer, a clerk at Lathrop, says that once the phase out was announced, a mother had to fight to transfer students in. This was an indication that the school district did not expect the school to survive. But even with a few students trickling in, the fate of the school seemed sealed, Palmer says.
CPS has done some renovations to Lathop over the past few years, making the school staff feel like the district wanted them out as soon as possible to make way for something new.
“We knew the work was not for use,” she says. “We knew the school would not be completely phased out.”
At Dyett, students say that CPS officials are using tactics to drive students out, directing them to alternative schools or taking them on field trips to other schools. As student leaders with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, they allege that keeping resources from their school is a violation of their civil rights and have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, and written a letter to Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Oshay Dancy, a sophomore at Dyett, says CPS brought in a new, strict principal, who is issuing suspensions at the drop of a hat. “At first we had hope,” he said. “But the atmosphere has gotten so bad.” He added that students seem to be transferring out on a daily basis.
But CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler says the accusations are “flat-out wrong” and the principal of Dyett does not care to respond to them. No students have been expelled and no one has been taken on “field trips to other schools,” Ziegler says, although adding that if students want to transfer out, the school is being accommodating.
Ziegler says district data shows the number of students who left Dyett this year is slightly less than in recent years. A third of them have transferred to alternative schools, while the rest have left the district or gone to other high schools, including charters. But Ziegler admits that fewer students are transferring in.
“Parents are simply choosing other school options for their students,” Ziegler says. “It is often the case when schools are slated for phase out or closure that parents move their kids to another school.”
Dyett teacher Katrina Richard says that, even though the school will eventually close, some students have come to register. They have mostly come from charter schools. Richards says she’s been told that they have been turned away.
CPS officials, however, say 11 students have transferred in since February.
A net loss of students could spell the early end of Dyett. Sophomore Pierre Williams says he plans to stick by Dyett--“I don’t believe in giving up.” But he says it is disarming to see teachers leave and his classes shrink.
Williams and other students want the decision to close Dyett reversed and a plan they worked on with KOCO to be implemented. The plan calls for feeder schools to have a global leadership focus and for Dyett’s curriculum to be aligned with that.
However, Dyett’s teachers and staff have resigned themselves to the idea that Dyett will dwindle away. “It is a done deal,” says Marilyn Foster, a computer teacher.
With only nine teachers left to cover three grades and every subject, the teachers will be taxed and few electives or extras will be offered.
“I would transfer my child to a school that has the resources,” Foster says.
Ziegler says that, as promised, CPS has provided or plans to provide extra academic and social-emotional supports for remaining students, including ACT prep classes and peace circles.
Still, the teachers say that they think Dyett has long been set up to fail and that the situation will worsen as the school phases out. “It just doesn’t make sense,” says teacher Jill Stone. “The ones who need the most get the least.”