Community Wisdom and the Dyett High School Hunger Strikers

Contributors: Kwesi Rollins, Director, Leadership Programs at the Institute for Educational Leadership

As Chicago Public Schools continued to delay making a decision in response to a community plan to turn Dyett High School into a sustainable community school -- Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology HS -- community leaders and parents began a hunger strike on August 17th.

A hunger strike is not something that people start without a clear sense that the values and principles they hold dear are being compromised. The hunger strikers argue that the Chicago Public Schools have been unresponsive to the concerns of the community, closing numerous schools in recent years, and now failing to give a full and fair hearing to their plan for Dyett. The strikers believe that the focus on charters and contract schools created by the district has not yielded the results that they seek for their children. They want a voice in deciding the kind of schools their children attend.

The hunger strike comes at a time when there is lots of talk about family and community engagement in public education. Too often words do not lead to action that thoughtfully engages people in decisions that affect the lives of their families and communities.

In his review of Dale Russakoff's new book about reform in Newark, Alex Kotlowitz puts the question this way, "Public education is the bedrock of democracy -- and yet when it comes to repairing our schools the democratic process is too often ignored. What ultimately derails this grand experiment [in Newark] is the unwillingness of the reformers to include parents and teachers in shaping the reforms."

Andrea Gabor makes a related point in her commentary The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover. She states "Howard L. Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent, said the charter movement won't have 'any type of long-term sustainability' without meaningful participation from the black community.

The fundamental question that the Dyett hunger strike and these comments raises is who knows best when it comes to the kind of public schools our children need? Should the decision be left to "experts" who most often do not reflect the communities they seek to serve, nor understand their culture"? Should the community have the power to decide?

A 2012 research report found that high-poverty schools achieving the highest reading scores in Chicago were governed by active parent-led Local School Councils. And research and practice on public participation in governmental decisions argues that such involvement leads to better decisions and more public support for those decisions.

In her seminal 1969 article, Ladder of Citizen Participation, Sherry Arnstein examines why people reject "non-participation" and refuse to be "tokens." They want a real voice in decision making. Her analysis is as true today as it was then. Put simply, people support what they help to create.

Of course experts have a role to play. But all their education and experience is not a substitute for community wisdom. Despite the idea that "parents are their children's first and best teachers", too often key decisions impacting children are made without the input of their parents and families. Sadly, this is particularly true in communities of color. We need integrated approaches grounded in respectful and trusting relationships that honor local wisdom and build authentic school-community partnerships for student success.

Until we get to a point where decision making can be shared in Chicago and elsewhere, we will stand with the wisdom of our partners and friends at Dyett who are risking their well-being in their quest for a high performing community school.