WASHINGTON — On Day 17 of a hunger strike, two Dyett High School activists won a meeting on Wednesday with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO, escalating their battle against Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“We shared our story,” Jitu Brown, the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, a network of community groups focusing on bolstering public schools, told the Chicago Sun-Times after the meeting.
Duncan dropped in the meeting, joined by senior adviser Ruthanne Buck and Khalilah Harris, the deputy director at the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, which is housed in the Education Department.
“There were no commitments made. They were empathetic and said they are thinking about what they can do,” Brown said.
Brown and April Stogner, another hunger striker, flew here on Wednesday to throw a national spotlight on their fight with Emanuel, with their travel paid for by the American Federation of Teachers.
“I think the meeting went really well,” Stogner said after they talked to Duncan and the other officials. “We talked to people who were concerned with our concerns.”
Before heading into the meeting, they were joined at a news conference in front of the Education Department building by, among others, AFT President Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association.
For the AFT and the NEA, the Dyett controversy is an extension of their push against Emanuel and his education policies. Earlier this year, the AFT donated more than $1 million to the campaign of Emanuel’s mayoral election challenger, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. The NEA also contributed about $200,000 to Garcia.
At issue on the strictly local Chicago level is who will be in control when Dyett, at 555 E. 51st St., is reborn as a new school in the 2016-2017 school year.
Emanuel has postponed a decision and the hunger strikers say the bidding process is rigged against them and their proposal to relaunch Dyett as an open enrollment neighborhood high school, the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology Community High School.
At the national level, the fight over the future of Dyett is part of a national struggle that teachers unions and progressive groups are having in Chicago and other cities over what they see as the dismantling of public schools.
“Dyett is the epicenter of a national struggle,” Garcia said at the news conference.
“What is going on in Chicago? This is a hunger strike for justice,” Weingarten said. Referring to Emanuel, not by name, she said that when a local leader “Democrat or Republican, refuses to listen to the community . . . there is no place to turn but the federal government.”
Education Department Press secretary Dorie Nolt said in a statement, “While this is squarely a local issue, we always welcome the opportunity to engage with concerned students, parents, educators and community members.”
On Day 18 of the hunger strike, Brown and Stogner will remain in Washington, making more media rounds and trying to get a meeting at the White House.