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Matt Farmer

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One Public School's Death By A Thousand Cuts

Posted: 12/02/11 12:32 PM ET

Chicago's Walter H. Dyett High School was set up as a house of cards. Former CPS CEO Paul Vallas was the architect. His successor, Arne Duncan, served for years as the absentee landlord. And current CEO Jean-Claude Brizard was recently cast in the role of the evicting sheriff, having served Dyett with papers on November 30. If Brizard gets his way, the 40-year-old Bronzeville school will soon be no more.

Under Brizard's plan, Dyett's current students will be allowed to finish high school in their building, but Brizard will not allow Dyett to accept any new freshmen, citing Dyett's seven consecutive years on academic probation as reason enough to shutter the school.

Dyett, however, has been dying the death of a thousand cuts since 1999, and the deepest of those cuts were made by Vallas and Duncan. It was Vallas, after all, who decided back in March of 1999 that Dyett, which had long been a neighborhood middle school, needed to be reinvented as a high school.

Why?

Well, just two years earlier, in 1997, Vallas had slated nearby King High School -- along with six other under-performing CPS high schools -- for "reconstitution" (a term Brizard now uses interchangeably with "turnaround"). So Vallas fired all the teachers and employees at those seven schools and told them they needed to reapply for their jobs. Sound familiar?

A year later, however, Vallas made other plans for King. He decided that King would stop taking new freshmen. The current student body would be allowed to finish at King, but then the school would get an extensive makeover and a new lease on life before it reopened as King College Prep, a selective enrollment school.

Of course, that meant Vallas needed to find a place to send all those struggling kids who lived near 44th and Drexel -- you know, the kids he'd just kept from attending King.

Enter the Dyett middle school.

Vallas gave notice in March of 1999 that he was going to transform Dyett into a high school, and even more surprising, he declared that Dyett would begin its new life as a high school in just six short months.

Never mind that it was going to be a high school for a lot of the same underachieving kids that Vallas had just barred from King. Never mind that hundreds of junior high kids who'd been attending the old Dyett were now going to have to share their building with hundreds of struggling older kids that Vallas had not yet figured out how to educate back when they were at King feeder schools just a mile or so down the road. There was no real need to sweat the details; what's one more underserved group of kids in Chicago's Black Belt?

Sure, there was outcry and objection from the community back in 1999, but the deal went down like they always do in this town.

Because in the end, this was just another real estate deal -- downtown power brokers moving low-rent Monopoly properties between Bronzeville's Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues.

With kids getting shortchanged every step of the way.

According to Jitu Brown, an education organizer for the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, who has also served for years as a member of Dyett's Local School Council, Vallas and his successors failed to provide the "new" Dyett High School with the resources and professional support that Dyett needed to thrive in the years after Vallas changed the school's mission and its population. Brown and others fought for years to get Dyett a high-school quality library, a consistently working heating system, and even basic school supplies. Moreover, Brown said that not one student in the first group of Dyett high school graduates (the class of 2003) "was ever given the opportunity to take an honors class in any subject." (Just this spring, Dyett's principal told ESPN that "[t]he school has probably not been freshly painted in probably 20 or even 30 years.")

And things only got worse in 2005, after Duncan decided that Dyett would receive 125 of the soon-to-be-displaced students from Englewood High School, which Duncan had decided to close that year. Brown and other community members had warned Duncan that his decision to scatter the Englewood students would likely cause a spike in violence, but Duncan pushed ahead and the violence at and around Dyett increased.

Amazingly, the junior high kids remained at Dyett through 2006. Nothing quite like sheltering the young ones. As they say every hour on the hour down at CPS headquarters, "it's all about the children."

So what's Brizard's plan for the current crop of 7th and 8th-graders who would ordinarily be attending Dyett for high school in the next year or two? Has he found "quality seats" for these historically underserved kids?

No.

Instead, he's sending them to Phillips High School, another CPS school that has been on probation for years -- fifteen years. But, says Brizard, The Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) has been running Phillips since the summer of 2010, so expect great things.

After all, Mayor Emanuel seems to think AUSL is the gold standard for "school reform" in Chicago. In fact, he loaded up his Board of Education with AUSL honchos like David Vitale and Winnetka's own Tim Cawley.

One thing the kids can probably expect is a drop in enrollment. AUSL pegs enrollment at Phillips for the 2011-2012 school year at 593 students. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, the school's enrollment was 857 students just one year earlier. Turnaround schools seem to find a way to get rid of tough cases.

But who's running Phillips? Well, when AUSL applied back in June 2010 for a school improvement grant for Phillips, AUSL told the Illinois State Board of Education (whose then-chairman Jesse Ruiz now serves as vice-president of Chicago's Board of Education):

"AUSL has selected Terrance Little, an experienced restart principal from one of AUSL's 2008 restart schools. Terrance brings visionary leadership to the school and will be supported by an experienced mentor principal and central office team."

Despite AUSL's full-court press in the media, the visionary lasted only a year at Phillips -- about the same amount of time he'd spent at almost every other school at which he'd worked.

So Phillips now has its second "turnaround principal" in as many years.

But unlike Dyett, which fought for table scraps, Phillips will now have access to money. And to powerful people. And to reporters who are all too happy to tell new versions of the same feel-good stories that they told when Vallas and Duncan ran the show -- even though most of those old stories now ring hollow.

 

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