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Failing schools: Should we cut our losses, or fight to reform them?

Recent education reforms have encouraged closing many long-troubled schools. Between 2010 and 2011, 2,000 schools were closed nation-wide. But some argue this may not be the right answer.

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Another concern: City data show charters often rely heavily on rookie teachers who aren't fully certified or rated as highly qualified in their fields. These novices, often white, replace veteran unionized teachers, many of them African American. That troubles some parents who say they want their kids exposed to black role models.

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Dyett students who don't get into a selective school will be assigned to Phillips Academy, a public school that the district is trying to improve by hiring a private management team to run it. It's been slow going - attendance has improved, but test scores have dropped far below those at Dyett. Fewer than 1 percent of students passed the state math test last year and just 8 percent passed the reading test.

Students say the prospect of being shuffled from a bad school to a worse one - or taking their chances with charters - makes them feel like pawns.

"The only possible reason for this repeated forced removal into new and strange schools is that, being poor and African American, we are viewed as expendable," they wrote in the letter to Duncan, which included a formal civil-rights complaint to the U.S. Department of Education.

The federal government has not responded to the complaint, and Chicago Public Schools denies discrimination by race or income. But in response to widespread complaints about its school closing decisions, Chicago officials recently appointed a commission to study possible changes in policy.

In the meantime, the district has sought to reassure parents that it's not giving up on any child.

Dyett has an energetic new principal, Charles Campbell, who says the district recently allocated $500,000 for him to buy new textbooks, hire a second guidance counselor and buy online programs to tutor students in math and reading (though the software runs slowly on the old computers).

Campbell tells his staff and students that just because Dyett failed in the past doesn't mean its last two years must be failures, too.

"We screwed up. I got that," Campbell said. "Let's not keep screwing up."

Reporting by James B. Kelleher in Chicago and Stephanie Simon in Boston; editing by Lee Aitken and Prudence Crowther

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