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Dyett high school hunger strike ends after 34 days

Updated Sept. 22, 10:42 a.m.

Protesters demanding Dyett High School reopen as a neighborhood school with a green technology curriculum have ended their hunger strike after 34 days. The end of the strike comes after protesters won a number of key demands but never declared victory.

A news conference with the hunger strikers and their supporters is set for Monday afternoon at Rainbow P.U.S.H. headquarters.

On August 17, a group of 12 parents and school activists began a liquids-only diet to protest what they said is the destruction of neighborhood schools, especially in African American neighborhoods, and the “privatization of public education.” The group and supporters gathered daily on the grounds of Dyett High School on the city’s south side. They also took their protest to Chicago Public Schools headquarters, City Hall, President Barack Obama’s home in Kenwood, U.S. Education Secretary and former CPS CEO Arne Duncan, and a town hall budget meeting in which their protest forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to be whisked from the stage.

On September 3 — Day 18 of the hunger strike — CPS announced it would reopen Dyett as a district-run school with an arts curriculum, a move that would honor the school’s namesake, music teacher Walter H. Dyett. The CPS plan ceded to a number of demands made by the hunger strikers. First, Dyett would reopen as a school, which was not initially contemplated. It would have a neighborhood boundary, meaning all children in the attendance-area could attend without having to first meet minimum test-score requirements or go through a lottery (nearly all Chicago high schools opened in the past decade have had citywide boundaries and require students to apply; no one is guaranteed admission). And it would include a technology component, which hunger strikers had demanded.

Related: Who was Walter Dyett?

CPS billed the plan as a “compromise,” but it reached the agreement not with the hunger strikers or KOCO (Kenwood Oakland Community Organization) but with a separate set of community leaders. The protesters declared their hunger strike would continue.

While the hunger strike began about a month ago, the roots of the fight began years ago, when CPS shook up the local schools in the Bronzeville-Kenwood-Washington Park area by turning the high school, King, into a test-in school. Dyett became the default attendance-area high school for the area--it had been a middle school until then--and activists say it was never properly funded. The school board voted in 2012 to phase Dyett out; the last class graduated in June with 13 students.

KOCO pushed for a new high school to replace Dyett as it was being phased out, and the district eventually agreed to ask for proposals. Three were submitted: one for an arts school to be run by nonprofit Little Black Pearl Arts and Design Center; one for a sports school submitted by Dyett’s last principal; and a KOCO proposal for a “Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.” A vote on the proposals was slated for August. When CPS leadership changes put off the vote, the hunger strike began.

The hunger strikers received local and national support from aldermen, state lawmakers, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

As the weeks went on, the stress of going without solid food began to take its toll. At least two hunger strikers required medical attention, one was hospitalized and another was carried out of a CPS meeting by paramedics. Last week, four dropped out, citing health concerns. The group says five new people offered and began to take their places in the hunger strike.

Flanked by hunger strikers and their supporters,  the Reverend Jesse Jackson congratulated the group’s efforts at Rainbow P.U.S.H headquarters, about a mile away from Dyett High School. He said the group accomplished a great deal. The Reverend Janette Wilson of Rainbow P.U.S.H. is talking to CPS on behalf of the hunger strikers.

“We were not negotiating in a labor sense,” said Wilson. “The school is going to be open enrollment. It’s a neighborhood school, it’s a community school. We’re trying to celebrate that victory right now. And as we continue conversations going forward, more things will be agreed to.”

Another person who’s had conversations with CPS is Illinois State Senator Kwame Raoul (D). “Certainly one in person and a little bit on the phone,” said Raoul. “ I don’t want to pump it up to be more than it is. As community stakeholders, we’re concerned with all parties involved, not just the coalition.”

Brown says they’re not finished and as they plan for another phase, they have a list of demands to be fulfilled. Some include using the words “green technology” in the school name, appointing ex-CPS teacher Duane Turner as principal, and keeping the name “Dyett.” Walter Dyett, the famed Chicago public schools music director, taught high school music to future jazz greats Gene Ammons, Von Freeman, Dinah Washington and Nat “King” Cole.

WBEZ’s Linda Lutton contributed to this story.

Follow WBEZ reporter Yolanda Perdomo on Twitter @yolandanews

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