Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday October 14th, 2014, 4:48pm

Chicagoans Speak Out Against School Actions Cited In Federal Civil Rights Complaint

U.S. Department of Education officials heard first-hand stories about the impact public school closings and consolidations are having in Chicago at a South Side community meeting held Monday night with parents, students and their supporters.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is currently looking into a complaint filed by education activists alleging "racially discriminatory" school actions and closings in Chicago. Organizers with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) and the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School spearheaded the town hall meeting, held at First Unitarian Church of Chicago in Hyde Park. The discussion was designed to allow education department reps to hear directly from the people affected by the school actions cited in the complaint. The two education department officials were at the meeting strictly to listen.

The complaint, filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the use of federal funds, was brought in May on behalf of African-American students who are enrolled at Walter H. Dyett High School and Irvin C. Mollison Elementary School as well as "all similarly situated African-American students living in the Bronzeville area in the South Side of Chicago who are bearing the harm of racially discriminatory school closings, phase-outs, turnarounds and consolidations."

The Chicago Board of Education voted to phaseout Dyett High School back in 2012 due to poor academic performance. Dyett is expected to close completely after the current academic year when its last senior class graduates. In the complaint, activists claim Dyett has experienced disinvestment following the board's vote to phase out the school.

The other school mentioned in the complaint, Mollison Elementary, is the designated welcoming school for displaced students from nearby Anthony Overton Elementary School, which closed last year as part of a record number of public school closings. The complaint says Mollison is overcrowded and underfunded.

Overton students have been "moved about a mile away to go to Mollison, and there's been an impact on that school. There's been an impact on the students who are currently at Dyett who have had to live through the phaseout of Dyett," said Jitu Brown, a KOCO leader and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), a national network of grassroots groups advocating for community-driven school improvement.

J4J and the the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group, initiated the complaint. The groups filed two similar federal complaints against school actions in New Orleans and Newark, New Jersey. 

At Monday's town hall meeting, several Mollison parents and its Local School Council president said the elementary school is overcrowded to the point where special education "pull-out" services, including speech therapy, have to take place in the hallway under the stairs. Due to the overcrowding, some students also have to eat lunch in the hallway or their classroom, parents said. Overall, there about 30 students per classroom at Mollison, according to parents.

Beverly Marshall has four children at Mollison, including a special needs student. She said the school does not have enough special education teachers.

The school has "one pull-out special ed teacher that has to serve sixth through eighth grade children," she said. "So how can you service all the kids at once?"

Jeanette Taylor, a Mollison parent and the school's LSC president, also noted that the school experienced $196,000 in budget cuts this year, which resulted in the loss of a school counselor, a kindergarten teacher and an arts instructor. 

"Mollison has always been a school that struggled due to (Chicago Public Schools) policies and procedures," Taylor said. "The merger of Mollison Elementary and Overton Elementary is a result of the people who were directly impacted not being listened to."

Activists with the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School, meanwhile, have been fighting the decision to close Dyett in 2015. They have been calling on Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the school district to endorse their community-driven blueprint to keep Dyett open beyond 2015 and offer global leadership and green technology classes at the school, along with other programs involving agricultural sciences and cultural awareness.

Last month, 11 coalition members escalated their fight to save Dyett and were arrested after they chained themselves together around a statute on the fifth floor of City Hall outside of the mayor's office. At that protest, the activists demanded equity for the 13 remaining seniors at Dyett.

Dyett students reportedly won concessions from the mayor's office as a result of last month's protest, including ACT prep classes, which had not been offered at the school. Representatives from the mayor's office also reportedly promised that the school would receive a physical education instructor. 

At last night's meeting, Chrisean Criddell, one of the 13 seniors who remain at Dyett, said the high school still does not have a gym teacher.

The high school currently has only four instructors, added Nefateria Denton, another Dyett senior. Classes such as health, environmental science and art appreciation have to be taken online, Dyett students said.

"We will raise the temperature on this issue," Brown said. "And when the story is written, I hope the people that write the story frame it by saying, 'Why did the parents and the students have to do all of this? All they want is a good school.'"

Pauline Lipman, professor of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education, also spoke at the meeting. Lipman has studied Chicago public school policies, specifically school closings and charter school expansion, since 2004.

Since that time, Lipman said there have been some 150 school actions in the city.

"The effects have been racially disparate," she said. "There is no way to understand it any differently. Eighty-seven percent of the students affected by these school actions have been African-American students, and most of the rest have been Latinos." 

She added that there is "no research that supports school closings [or] school turnarounds" and "charter schools are not doing any better than regular neighborhood schools." 

"I cannot understand how a school district that says that parent involvement is a key piece of educational improvement would ignore parents year after year after year, even when they chain themselves to a statute on the fifth floor of City Hall," Lipman stressed. "Parents felt excluded from the school-closing decisions and some feel excluded from their new schools. This is a citywide disenfranchisement of African-American parents. I'm not a lawyer, but it sounds like a civil rights violation to me." 

At the meeting, education activists stressed the need for an elected school board in Chicago. Earlier on Monday, a broad-based coalition of parents, teachers and community groups officially launched a campaign to get advisory referendum questions about an elected school board on the ballot in each of the city's 50 wards during the February municipal election.

The Chicago Board of Education is the only non-elected school board in Illinois, and the state legislature must ultimately change the rules

Brown and other education activists claim an unelected Chicago school board is taxation without representation and a violation of voting rights.

The group Communities Organized for Democracy in Education plans to file state and federal lawsuits as early as January to win an elected school board in the city. The group is currently raising funds needed to file the suits.

The federal lawsuit being developed makes the claim that "denial of an elected school board is a violation of the Voting Rights Act," Brown said. 

"When you look at where appointed school boards are, they are primarily in school districts of color," he explained. "The state lawsuit would deal with taxation without representation. The school board can raise your taxes, but you have no way to hold them accountable based on the policies that they set, and that affects black and white families."

Stay tuned.

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