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Head of the Class

Chicago’s eight “selective enrollment” public high schools are fielding some of the city’s top graduates, giving parents an attractive alternative to fleeing for the suburbs. But are these elite institutions draining the brains out of the neighborhoods?

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Student Profiles | Honor Roll: How the Elite Eight Make the Grade

“It is a myth to say that selective enrollment schools are funded more,” says CPS chief Arne Duncan.

Sharon Ford was “absolutely feeling the pressure” of trying to find a good public high school for her daughter, Kelly, a high-performing eighth grader at a magnet elementary school on Chicago’s North Side. Not satisfied with their neighborhood school, the Ford family toured the top tier of the city’s elite public schools: Northside College Preparatory High School, Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, Whitney Young Magnet High School, and up-and-comer Jones College Preparatory High School.

“The discouraging thing about this is that over and over we were told there are not enough slots for all the applicants,” recalls Ford, who also has a son in fifth grade. “This means that hundreds, maybe even thousands, of qualified kids, many who have been in the Chicago public school system for nine years, are turned away simply because of lack of availability in the good schools.

“I see why people move out of the city,” Ford says. “It’s a very frustrating experience even with a good student coming from a good elementary school.”

A decade ago, families like the Fords faced few good public high-school choices. But in the intervening years, the city has adopted a program-somewhat unusual among major U.S. cities-aimed at capturing the best students and keeping their families in town: the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have created a handful of high-performance high schools that admit only select students, those who meet demanding standards. The tactic has worked, at least in some respects. These elite schools with their lofty admission standards now provide an A-plus education to more than 10,000 bright kids, who then go on to some of the best colleges in the country.

That’s the good news. On the harsher side of the ledger, thousands of other good students get turned away. At Northside College Prep, for example, just under 5,600 students applied for the 225 seats in last fall’s freshman class. (Students may apply to as many as four selective enrollment schools and must rank the schools in order of preference.) Overall last year, 10,755 students vied for the 2,565 places in the city’s eight selective enrollment high schools, which means fewer than one in four got in. Beyond the disappointment for students who miss the cut, some skeptics of the program wonder whether it is appropriate to skim off the best students, thus depriving others in neighborhood schools of talented classmates who could lead, set examples, and productively rub shoulders with their less academically successful peers. Critics also question the choice of creating new schools for students who are already performing well, when so many Chicago students lag far behind.

“It’s discouraging to see how much money was put into schools like Payton and Northside Prep when there are so many other high schools in the district that don’t have science labs, or computers or swimming pools,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), an advocacy group for parents in Chicago’s public schools; Woestehoff’s own kids graduated from Whitney Young.

There’s no question, however, that the elite schools are making the grade. Average ACT scores for the graduating class of 2005 at seven of the schools was 23 out of a possible 36, compared with 17 for all CPS high schools. (Lindblom Math and Science Academy reopened last fall after a $40-million renovation with just a freshman class and was not included in the results.) Seventy-six percent of students who graduated in 2004 from selective enrollment high schools went on to college, compared with 43 percent of all CPS high-school graduates.

Last year, five of the six schools that graduated a senior class sent at least one graduate to an Ivy League school, and Northside College Prep sent at least one graduate to every Ivy. (A student at the sixth, Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, was accepted at Yale, but went to Stanford instead.)

“For the first time ever we’re competing for the best students in the city,” says CPS chief Arne Duncan. “To keep more families in the city, to keep them in CPS, is unprecedented. We were not even in the game before. Now we’re at the table in a big way, and that raises the bar for everyone. Does it [the selective enrollment program] help keep middle-class families here? Absolutely. That’s a piece of it. But there’s a decent number of poor kids who desperately need good options, too."  

On an ordinary February morning, things were anything but ordinary at Northside College Prep, housed in a $45-million glass-and-steel wonder on the Northwest Side. In freshman physics, small groups of students measured the velocity of a red toy car they had rigged to a track and hooked up to a computer. Down the hall in sophomore chemistry, teacher Barry Rodgers vacuum sealed a student up to her neck in a plastic trash bag to demonstrate the effects of changing atmospheric pressure. Juniors in British Literature were rehearsing scenes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the hallway. And in the world language wing, Spanish teacher Wanda Villodas was cleaning up from a Mexican fiesta. Her students had made pico de gallo, quesadillas, and guacamole. For homework, they would write the recipes in Spanish. Everyone knew the 100-minute period had ended when, instead of a bell, Motown tunes played through the sound system.

“Students who want to be told the right answer will be frustrated here until they discover the joy of learning for themselves,” says Northside’s Principal James Lalley.  

Like Chicago’s top private and suburban schools, the selective enrollment schools offer a high-powered curriculum of courses taught at the honors or advanced placement (AP) level. The demanding course loads are not surprising considering the caliber of the students admitted. To get in, they compete on a scale of 1,000 points. Seventy percent of the score is based on a student’s academic performance in the seventh grade, what Sharon Ford calls the “pressure-cooker year.” The breakdown includes: standardized achievement test scores in reading and math (300 points); grades in reading, math, science, and social studies (300 points); and attendance (100 points). In eighth grade, students take an entrance exam worth the final 300 points. At the elite schools, the average placement scores for the current freshman class ranged from 804 at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School to a whopping 956 at Northside.

A decades-old federal desegregation mandate requires CPS to keep enrollment in balance with the race and ethnicity of the district’s population. When the rank order of applicants does not produce an acceptable mix, schools select comparatively lower-scoring students from groups that are underrepresented. In practice, that means that some black and Hispanic students may get moved ahead of higher-scoring white students. “We want a balance between equity and excellence,” says Jeff Gray, CPS program manager for the selective enrollment high schools program. “All of the kids are superstars.”

Nonetheless, the schools mirror the city’s housing patterns, at least to a degree. The South Side schools-King, Brooks, and Lindblom-are predominantly black, and, heading north, white students make up the largest group at Northside and Payton. But that’s fine with Karen Lueschow, one of Lindblom’s school counselors. “We want to keep the South Side students on the South Side,” she says. “Why travel hours and hours when you can get the same opportunity right here?”

In a school district that is nearly half African American, CPS data (which does not include Lindblom) shows that in the current school year, 38 percent of selective enrollment students are black, a number down slightly from the previous year. Hispanics make up 38 percent of the district, but only 22 percent attend selective enrollment schools. Although CPS is just 8 percent white, 23 percent of selective enrollment students are white. And Asians, constituting just 3.2 percent of the district, account for 12 percent of selective enrollment students.

“While students don’t have to absolutely reflect the demographics of the district, the percent of black students is starting to look better, while the percent of Hispanic students is starting to look a little skimpy,” says Sue Sporte, senior research analyst at the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. “I don’t know exactly what the range should be, but the number of white students, while lower than I expected, probably is a little high. That Asian students are overrepresented compared to their population in the district mirrors the kind of distribution that is typically seen at highly selective schools nationwide, whether they are at the high-school or college level. This is not unique to Chicago."  

The nearly two-year-old radio podcast produced by 40 Whitney Young students, called WY Stream, blends an eclectic mix of politics, culture, sports, music, and poetry. On a recent show, junior Jeremy Kiolbassa interviewed Michelle Obama, a 1981 Whitney Young graduate and wife of U.S. Senator Barack Obama. In another segment, a jazz trio of seniors played original music. More recently, Daniel Williams shared his favorite “senior moments” in his high-school career, while Kyshira Moffett discussed the fading appeal of the hippie skirt. The team will soon move into a state-of-the-art broadcast studio adjacent to the school’s new computer lab.

“We’re big enough to handle the different interests and tastes that students might want to share,” says Assistant Principal Melvin Soto, who runs the technology lab and directs the broadcast.

Coffee House, a frequent after-school open mike session, offers another opportunity for creative expression. Acts typically range from poetry readings to electric guitar.

“It’s a place for kids to be safe and enjoy each other’s art,” says Martha Murphy, a music teacher who directs the program. “We have some astonishing talent and they’re very supportive of each other. Our students come from all over the city, so you’ve got to have a family." 

But what is the impact of segregating a school district’s brightest students? Some of the skepticism comes from surprising sources. “I don’t want to be negative, because the quality of education is so terrific, but there’s something lacking when all students are extremely bright,” says Keith Foley, principal at Lane Tech (with more than 4,200 students, arguably the most economically and academically mixed of the selective enrollments). “It’s an unrealistic view of what life is going to be like. It leaves a gap because you’re not interacting with kids who are just average. Kids who are extremely bright should share it with others. In the classroom, it helps to raise the level of discussion. I’ve seen some kids who are really bright and are so focused on grades, they let life go by. They see the kids who have other skills and qualities beyond academics that they can learn from. It’s definitely a two-way street.”

Arthur Tarvardian, principal at Taft High School, a neighborhood school of 2,500 in Norwood Park, says that a selective system creates the impression that his and other local schools are second rate. “Years ago [Taft] had such an outstanding reputation,” he says, adding that in recent years the school has “lost the trust of its neighbors” due to gang problems. “My objective is to bring them all back and make it a true neighborhood school. The kids who I believe belong to me were stolen by a thief in the night. We got the short end here.”

Tarvardian also questions why a public school system would create separate schools for academically elite kids. Building, renovating, and supporting these schools, he says, “takes money out of my kids’ pockets.”

Arne Duncan denies that. “It is a myth to say that selective enrollment schools are funded more,” he says. “The basic funding formula is identical.”

Tavardian is unconvinced. “I really feel like [the neighborhood schools] are going to lose in the long run,” he says. “This was done at the expense of the general high-school population.”

While CPS has made a commitment to grow its selective enrollment system, other big cities seem content to live with what they have. New York, with by far the largest school district in the country, has seven exam-entrance schools. The best known, the Bronx High School of Science, was founded in 1938. Boston, although smaller than Chicago, has three. Los Angeles, the second-biggest district, has just one selective enrollment high school.

Sue Sporte, the University of Chicago education researcher, says studies have shown that concentrations of poverty or low motivation have a detrimental effect on schools. But it’s less clear that there’s an added benefit to congregating the smartest students together. “I don’t know that people have looked hard enough at the flip side,” she says.

Of course, a handful of top private high schools have long featured concentrations of bright kids. These days, according to CPS, approximately 14 percent to 18 percent of students attending selective enrollment high schools come from private or parochial elementary schools. Northside’s Principal James Lalley estimates that approximately 30 percent of his students come from private schools. Previously, many of these families likely would have remained in private schools or fled to the suburbs.

Anne Frame, director of admissions for the private Latin School of Chicago, says that although more of their students are looking at the elite public schools, Latin lost only one eighth grader last year to the CPS program. “It’s good for us to have stiff competition and it’s exciting that there are more good schools to choose from,” she says. “We need to be really clear about what the Latin experience is and what it means for our families. We need to make it easy for families to see what it’s really like here.”



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