Chicago community organizers demand educational reform for students of color

Members of several local groups gathered Wednesday outside Dyett High School in Washington Park, the site of a 2015 hunger strike to protest the closure of the later reopened neighborhood school.

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Marcellus Reid, 6, a first grade student at Kozminski Community Academy on the South Side

Marcellus Reid, 6, a first grade student at Kozminski Community Academy on the South Side, listens as his mother, Alberta Reid, speaks during a press conference outside Dyett High School for the Arts Wenesday.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

A group of black parents and community activists called on city and schools officials Wednesday to work harder to address the needs of students of color during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Members of several local groups gathered to share their concerns outside Dyett High School in Washington Park, the site of a 2015 hunger strike to protest the closure of the later reopened neighborhood school.

The coalitionlisted off its demands on grading, standardized testing, supports for homeless students, counseling services and other issues they saw as central to a quality education for students from low-income families.

Chicago Public Schools officials have already started to address at least some of the concerns. Standardized tests are canceled for this school year, and the district has handed out more than nine million meals since schools closed almost two months ago.

CPS has also passed out 102,000 laptops and tablets, reaching all but 13,000 kids who need them, and hopes to distribute the rest in the next two weeks.

But Alberta Reid, a CPS mother of two, said there needs to be permanent change, and there hasn’t been enough of a coordinated effort to address students’ unique challenges, such as what to do when a student has a laptop but no WiFi.

“Many of our families do not have access to internet,” Reid said. “This has made regular participation online difficult and impossible.”

The district also was distributing 12,000 hotspots with free internet access to students without permanent homes, but devices haven’t been available to other students because of a supply shortage.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said the district’s “number one priority is to support our families, students and staff during this unprecedented time and we are doing everything in our power to serve families to the best of our ability.”

The coalition of organizers demanded CPS hire more school counselors and special education teachers, become a “restorative justice district” that eliminates punitive police-involved discipline at schools and re-purpose permanently closed schools as housing and resource centers. They also want more teacher and student input on the plan for returning to school when it’s safe, and revised, no-fa grading policy that would see all students start at a 75% grade and move up with completed work.

Jitu Brown, of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and the Journey for Justice Alliance

Jitu Brown, of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and the Journey for Justice Alliance, speaks outside Dyett High School for the Arts, on Wednesday afternoon.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Jitu Brown, a longtime South Side community organizer, said he’s seen black and brown students neglected for decades. That has continued during the pandemic, he says, with a “lack of preparation” by CPS to fully serve students’ learning needs and “nocommunication or engagement with the public around how schools should look when school reopens.”

“We cannot go back to the way it was,” Brown said. “We have to confront education equity as a real issue in the city of Chicagoand a commitment, not just a soundbite, a commitmentto transforming how education is delivered in this city.

“Mayor Lightfoot, we ask you not to take this personally. We ask you to take this as an urging to be different. Take this as an urging to not be the Chicago Machine, but to truly walk the progressive walk, not just talk the progressive talk.”

Rev. Robin Hood, a West Side activist, said officials should use this time to reimagine education, not only now, but in the future.

“Now is the time to change this,” Hood said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, which most of our communities have been in a pandemic for the last 50 years when it came to violence. We’ve been in a pandemic when it came to education.”

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