WASHINGTON PARK — The last 13 students at Dyett High School would seem to have a natural bond, but it took a grant for a music program to help them form their own rock band that really brought them together for their senior year.
Dyett, at 555 E. 51st St., has been slated to be phased out for years by Chicago Public Schools. When the 13 remaining seniors graduate this month, after rattling around the building all year with a mere three teachers, a counselor, a principal and a clerk, the school will shut down, with its future uncertain.
"The very first day of school, they came in with their heads down," said Dyett teacher Amy Silverman. They were the subjects of news reports, while charging that Chicago Public Schools was encouraging the few students there to transfer out and go elsewhere. Even then, they maintained that they wanted to stay together at the school.
Dyett was starved for resources, and students took gym class online by studying health, as well as taking art and even their senior seminar online.
"We really were not budgeted with anything for art," said Silverman, a special-education teacher who taught drama at Dyett last year and remains the school's art liaison. "About everything was online."
That was when she discovered a Creative School Grant that could potentially fund a program created by Music House to teach the students music by having them form a rock band.
"I wanted to make sure they got some of the experiences that other students would get in bigger high schools," Silverman added. "I was on a mission, I guess, to make sure they were well taken care of."
Silverman went after the grant late last year and turned it around in record time. With approval, they began the program in February, Silverman said, shortly after the school also "borrowed" a gym teacher from another school to get the students out of online health and into an actual physical-education class.
Yet it was the music program that had an immediate impact, with "School of Rock"-type classes three days a week. Silverman called it "the highlight" of the school year.
"They wanted something where they can be more active," Silverman said. "So music brought out the best in them.
"It was huge for their morale," she added. "You go down into that music room when they're playing their instruments, and it's just a fun vibe."
"It made the year go faster, and we enjoyed ourselves," said Thomas Petty, a Dyett student who took to playing keyboards and plans to continue with it, after Wednesday's band practice. "It kind of made the school year exciting."
Jitu Brown, an education-oriented activist with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and a member of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School, agreed, saying it got the students out of the foxhole mentality of having to "tough it out" together and into a state of mind where they could actually enjoy something about the school and themselves.
"It really speaks to the love teachers have for their students," Brown said Tuesday. "I really commend it."
Brown said the community, not CPS, battled to give the 13 Dyett students a "normal" senior experience, complete with a prom, and the band was a part of that. Named D13, the group performed a Decision Day Jam concert for college-bound students outside the school early last month, doing renditions of "Sweet Home Chicago," "I Feel Good" and "Seven Nation Army" that might have staggered out of the starting gate, but soon found their legs and eventually rocked out. The performance was preserved in a YouTube video.
"The students really deserve a lot of credit for sticking in there," Brown added.
Brown recalled the same effect music had on him in the military.
"I was miserable, but music was like my healer. It helped bring me sanity," he said. "Music is more than extracurricular. Music is therapeutic."
Silverman had hopes of perhaps repeating that performance on an actual stage at Reggie's Rock Club Monday, after the students get through with a rehearsal for their graduation ceremony, to take place the following day. Silverman said she was hoping to give the Dyett community a chance to "come see how awesome our kids are."
Advoctes persist in efforts to reopen Dyett as a Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. That proposal has been submitted to CPS, along with a counterproposal to turn the school over to Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy. CPS has set a community meeting for June 17 at King High School to address the issue.
According to Brown, a federal Department of Education civil-rights investigation into Dyett and Mollison Elementary also is ongoing, with the U.S. agency taking the unusual step of holding focus groups at Kenwood Oakland Community Organization this week.
Yet the D13 show at Reggie's was nixed on Tuesday, with the club facing its usual Monday schedule of a band and a trivia contest, as well as the Blackhawks' televised home game in the Stanley Cup Final, and it finally determined it "cannot accommodate" the school. Silverman said she was looking for another venue, perhaps in tandem with KOCO.
"I would've liked to get us to Reggie's if possible, but ... if it's not gonna work, it's not gonna work," Silverman said. "At least we got to perform for somebody."
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