By Stephanie Simon and James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - By just about any definition, Walter H. Dyett High School has failed.
Just 10 percent can pass the state math exam; barely one in six is proficient in reading. The technology lab is so ancient, some of the computers still take 3-inch floppy disks. More teens drop out than graduate.
Yet when the Chicago Board of Education announced plans to shut the place down, it sparked a community uprising.
Students, parents and teachers have staged sit-ins outside the mayor's office; earlier this month, 10 were arrested for refusing to leave the fifth floor of City Hall. The protestors have held rallies. They've sued the school board. A group of students has filed a federal civil-rights complaint seeking to keep Dyett open.
Their quest to save a failed school may seem quixotic. But it is echoed in communities across the United States, as a rising anger at school closures takes hold.
The bipartisan education reform movement sweeping the nation - and promoted by President Barack Obama - calls for rating schools by their students' test scores and then taking drastic steps to overhaul the worst performers by firing the teachers, turning the schools over to private management or shutting them down altogether.
THE DOWNSIDE OF UPROOTING
Such policies have prompted waves of school closings in cities including Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. Across the nation, nearly 2,000 public schools were shuttered in 2010-11, federal data show. That's up 60 percent from 10 years earlier.
To advocates, such restructuring is vital to the urgent work of improving public education. "You need bold moves and radical change," said Eric Lerum, a vice president at StudentsFirst, a national education advocacy group.
But several studies, including a paper published in March in the Journal of Urban Economics, have found that displacing students through school closures can hurt them academically in the short term. The new research, conducted by the RAND Corp think tank, also found the closures didn't boost student achievement in the long term, even among those who transferred into schools considered far better.
Backed by teachers unions, which stand to lose members with each school that goes under, activists in Atlanta and Newark, N.J., in Philadelphia, Detroit and Oakland, Calif., have stormed school board meetings and organized student walkouts to protest closures. Chicago activist Jitu Brown even organized a small but feisty march on Washington this fall with parents and students from cities as far-flung as Wichita, Kansas, and Eupora, Mississippi.
SECOND-CLASS COLLEGE PREP
Brown, a burly man who roars with conviction, has focused the fight in Chicago on Dyett High, a sleek modernist structure of black steel and glass in the leafy, heavily African-American neighborhood known as Washington Park.
The district announced last year that Dyett would be phased out: It would accept no new students and would be shut down in 2015. Enrollment had been slipping for years, but officials said the decision was made solely because of Dyett's sorry academic record.
"There are some schools that are so far gone that you cannot save them," Jean-Claude Brizard, then the chief of Chicago schools, told the local CBS affiliate. "There's got to be some hope left in the building for you to be able to turn a school around."
District spokeswoman Becky Carroll added in an interview that many of those fighting to save schools slated for closure simply didn't understand how bad they really were because they had no frame of reference for comparison. "A lot of parents think their kids are going to a great school," she said. "They don't have the context to know what's great and what's not."
Students at Dyett have no illusion they're getting a top-flight education. They've seen the classes offered by schools in wealthier communities: Chinese, Latin and German, web design, forensic science, microeconomics. Because of its small size (enrollment has dipped below 300), Dyett gets less money from the district and offers just a bare-bones curriculum. Students cannot even take four full years of science or foreign language.
When O'Sha Dancy, a top student at Dyett, went to a recent college fair, he said recruiters told him that an "A" on his transcript wasn't as impressive as a "C" from a better public school.
"I don't believe they're getting me prepared for college," he said.
THE CHARTER PROSPECT: JUST MORE CHASTENING?
Yet O'Sha, who plays cornerback for the Dyett football team, remains devoted to his high school. He has spent hours attending school board hearings, participating in community meetings and working with his peers to draft an impassioned letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, asking for help saving Dyett. He even took his grandma to a sit-in outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office at City Hall.
District officials point out that many families in the area shun Dyett. In recent years, less than 30 percent of students living in the school's attendance zone have enrolled, district figures show. The others have chosen other schools. And there's clearly some apathy among those who have remained; just four adults showed up at a parent meeting the other night.
"That school should have been closed ... a long time ago," said Tenesha Barner, who pulled her son out of Dyett last year because she found the teachers indifferent and the students unruly.
But Dyett's fans say they see great potential in the school.
Students and parents spent the past two years drafting a plan to turn Dyett into a "school of green technology and leadership," brimming with hands-on science and community service projects. They secured pledges of investment from local universities and the teachers union and talked about hiring a social worker and nurse. But the district had already decided to shut Dyett down.
Even without the planned investments, Dyett's boosters say the school has strengths that don't show up in standardized test scores. Dyett collaborates with the Chicago Botanic Garden on a year-round "youth farm" where students grow spinach, sweet peas and strawberries. There's a brand-new athletic center, refurbished last year with corporate help. Tiles hand-painted by students form a mosaic of sparkling suns on one wall. The library, which had just seven books when Dyett was converted to a high school in 1999, has been steadily built up by community donations. Continued...