Chicago dominates top of state list with elite schools, with a catch

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Once again, Chicago’s elite high schools dominate the top of state’s high schools, with selective-enrollment schools taking the top four statewide spots.

But 28 of the state’s bottom 40 schools are Chicago neighborhood or contract public high schools, according to a Sun-Times ranking of state standardized test scores.

The top open enrollment neighborhood high school, Lincoln Park High School, sits in Chicago’s wealthiest neighborhood, though its scores on the Prairie State Achievement Examination have dipped slightly from last year.

DATA: The searchable 2014 School Report Card database RELATED: New teacher and principal reporting data unreliable

The lowest-ranked school statewide, Paul Robeson High School, sits in one of Chicago’s poorest communities, Englewood, though its low scores rose slightly.

“We already know that the selective-enrollment students have to meet a higher bar to get into those schools in the first place on standardized assessments,” said Jennifer Johnson, a special projects coordinator at the Chicago Teacher Union. “High test scores correlate with family income and the neighborhood in which students live.”

Walter Payton College Prep High School topped the Sun-Times list for the second year running, followed by Northside College Prep. Whitney Young held onto the state’s number three spot. Jones College Prep moved up a spot to take number 4. The rest of the state’s top 10 are open-enrollment high schools in some of the state’s wealthiest districts:  New Trier Township, in north suburban Winnetka; Hinsdale Central High School, in west suburban Hinsdale; Adlai E. Stevenson High School, in northwest suburban Lincolnshire; north suburban Glenbrook North High School, in Northbrook; and Deerfield High School, in Deerfield.

Chicago elementary schools also took the top five places statewide: Skinner North Elementary School, Decatur Classical Elementary School, Edison Elementary Regional Gifted Center, Keller Elementary Gifted Magnet School and McDade Elementary Classical School.

The next four are in some of Illinois’ wealthiest suburbs: Half Day School, in Lincolnshire; McKenzie and Romona elementary schools, in Wilmette; and Lincoln Elementary School, in River Forest. The 10th is in Springfield.

Among the state’s 10 lowest-ranked elementary schools are six Chicago neighborhood schools, all but one of which serve the city’s poorest communities.

The top-scoring neighborhood elementary school, Lincoln Elementary School, also sits in Chicago’s wealthiest community, Lincoln Park. The school’s scores have dipped slightly from last year, but still rank above the selective enrollment school, Poe Classical.

Rather than depending on the state’s “meeting or exceeding state standards” definition, the Sun-Times simply ranked Illinois schools against one another.

The gap between high-flying CPS schools and those that rank among the worst in the state is troubling, Johnson said, because neighborhood schools cannot pick and choose students, and they get little marketing or branding and less investment than the selective-enrollment programs.

“And CPS is acknowledging that lately, working on some sort of high school strategy,” she said. “My fear is it’s only top down, imposing IB and STEM and what are supposed to be an attractive magnet programs without investing in the very basic things a neighborhood high school needs to be to be successful: a nice building, small class size . . . parents who feel welcome in the school.”

At the most basic level, the rankings make kids feel like going to their own neighborhood schools is a consolation prize or worse. They ended up there because they couldn’t get in somewhere better.

District spokesman Bill McCaffrey did not explain specifically what CPS was doing to help struggling schools catch up. He said in an email that “Chicago Public schools is working on a comprehensive high school strategy to improve all high schools and is making strategic investments, including the OS4 initiative, to address the lowest-performing schools.”

Neighborhood schools, which have suffered deep budget cuts, serve a diverse population of students — from high academic achievers to kids who may not be proficient English speakers or have learning disabilities.

Carolyn Brown, a Kelly High School teacher, said her daughter transferred from Young to Kelly — whose students performed better than about 27 percent of state students — because she wasn’t comfortable with the competitive environment at the elite school.

“At the most basic level, the rankings make kids feel like going to their own neighborhood schools is a consolation prize or worse,”Brown said. “They ended up there because they couldn’t get in somewhere better.”

Brown said every year students at Kelly tell her, “ ‘I didn’t realize this was such a good school. I tried to get into fill-in-the-blank’ . . .and are surprised to find the number of programs we have here. There’s the impression that the neighborhood schools are not good enough.”

Scores don’t show the whole picture of what a school can offer, she said.

“Ranking schools is a really unhealthy practice,” Brown said. “It pits schools against each other. We shouldn’t be in competition with one another because we all serve the same purpose.”

Illinois State Board of Education superintendent Christopher Koch said on average, high school performance is rising. The number of high school students statewide meeting or exceeding state standards on the PSAE rose by a percentage point, from 53.3 percent in 2013 to 54.3 percent. Elementary school performance on the ISAT dipped 0.1 percent to 58.7 percent in 2014. Growth in reading dropped from 102.1 in 2013 to 99.4 but increased in math from 101.4 in 2013 to 102.9.

Koch noted that charter data won’t be available for individual charter campuses for a few more weeks, so charter schools were not included in the Sun-Times’ analysis.

The news wasn’t all bad for neighborhood schools that serve children from low-income families.

Ronald Brown Academy World Magnet School in West Pullman saw a huge jump in rankings from 1,344 in 2013 to 694 in 2014. About 95 percent of the 300 students in Pre-K through 8th grade come from low-income homes.

Principal Gale Baker, who just retired, said she needed three years to get the school up to CPS’ top rating with a dedicated staff and lots of tracking.

“We identified our high performers and honored them,” she said. “We encouraged our mid-tier performers. I made sure I could put as much [as possible] in place to support our low performers.” Brown instituted programs before and after school, and on Saturdays, too.

“From the very beginning, I spoke to my staff to say, ‘These children are just as deserving as any other children in any other community.’ My teachers would complain, ‘Ms. Baker, we’re struggling because we’re not getting parental support.’

“My response was, ‘We know that, so let’s stop whining about it and let’s do what we need to do. They can still learn. Are we going to throw in the towel because we’re not getting the cooperation from the parents?’ When we knew they didn’t [have parental support], we knew we had to put other things in place.”

For the past two school years, Brown also had “Walking Reading,” which meant all eight grades had the same 40-minute, carefully scheduled reading block, where children were grouped not by age but by reading level. Students reported to a classroom where everyone had similar ability.

“Sometimes I had 3rd-graders in 7th grade,” Baker said.

Cherie Barnes

Cherie Barnes

Cherie Barnes, mother of three Brown graduates and girls in kindergarten and the eighth grade, decided to drive her children back to Brown after the family moved to South Shore, because her older children witnessed Brown’s improvement under Baker’s leadership.

Barnes toured her new neighborhood schools but kept her kids at Brown. Aside from the extra help outside of school hours, the school had a ton of activities that make children “happy to be in school,” Barnes said. Her eighth-grader just took a field trip to the Art Institute and loves to read.

“Why would I leave that?” Barnes asked.

Piccolo School of Excellence in Humboldt Park still ranks at about the halfway point,  1,241st out of about 2,100 elementary schools statewide. But it jumped 864 places last year from 2,105th, one of the biggest leaps within CPS. Piccolo students went from outperforming just 20 percent of students statewide to 44 percent.

Piccolo was turned around in 2012, meaning its old staff was fired and replaced by the Academy of Urban School Leadership. AUSL receives extra money per child during the first several years of the turnaround to improve academics and the school’s culture.

“I think it was the momentum and again, it was the staff — really the growth and development of getting really smarter about teaching and learning,” said Keisha Campbell, an AUSL leader who works with Piccolo. That meant focusing closely on student work and using real-time results to teach to each child.

She said teachers spent an hour every week in “cluster meetings,” grouped by subject, discussing student progress and planning lessons together. The year before, they met just every other week.

“The first year, there was more emphasis on grade level meetings,” she said. “That could be a difference.”

Student attendance was also strong last year, ending the year at 96 percent, she said.

“I think that is a significant contributor, too,” she said.

Prosser Career Academy High School says its teachers’ high expectations helped its students score highly.

The Sun-Times’ rankings found that Prosser, in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, is the top scoring high school that serves nearly all low-income students, ranking 417th statewide.

“We’re not supposed to be doing so well — I’ve heard that said a lot,” said Linda Pierzchalski, the current principal. “As principal, I don’t believe it. I really believe it’s not what income level the kids are at. I believe it’s how you treat the kids. If you show that you care, they really perform beyond belief.”

Prosser, which according to ISBE is 92 percent low income, is a career academy that offers courses in several trades, for instance culinary arts, or auto body repair. A student graduates with certificate in a field, which helps with jobs. Culinary students, for example, can earn a sanitation certification that helps them earn $2 more an hour, school officials said.

The school combines that with its International Baccalaureate program, in a program for students who want the rigorous IB instruction, but also want to learn trade skills.

There’s also the standard IB program at the school of about 1,500, a majority of whom are Latino.

The beloved school is facing competition from a Noble Network of Charter schools campus that will be located across the street from Prosser.

There’s lots of outreach to nearby elementary schools that have traditionally fed into the career academy high school, but could now consider the charter school an option.

The charter school is “our competition,” said Pierzchalski. “We really have to work hard to make the kids happy [to] tell their family members ‘This is where I want to go.’”

The school’s energetic admissions officer, Jeffrey Bates, hosts fairs and meets with kids at elementary schools. Recently students in Prosser’s culinary arts program made tasty sweets and sent them to teachers at the feeder elementary schools. A class from Prieto Math and Science Academy got to snack on sweet potato fries, cooked by Prosser students from ingredients grown in the school’s garden.

“We can’t just sit back,” Pierzchalski said.

The school doesn’t see the charter as its only rival.

“We are competing with Lake Tech and Whitney Young,” Bates said.

In the culinary arts classroom, students prepared for a cooking competition by peeling carrots and chopping bell peppers.

Alejandra Blancarte, 17, a junior, said there’s “mutual respect” among the teachers and staff and the students.

“There’s really good opportunities for every student that comes here,” she said.

Her classmate, Denise Pillado, 17, a senior, said “There’s a high level of achievement.”

When Bates, the admissions officer who high-fives almost every student he comes across, enters a classroom, he  leads the students in a chant of the school motto, ”We are great!”

Kids in the carpentry program built benches and a gazebo on campus and handmade posters are seen in the colorful, shiny clean hallways.

“Anything is possible, anything is doable at Prosser,” Bates said.

Ismael Espinoza, 16, a junior, said his teachers are friendly and encouraging.

“They’re always trying to inspire you to be the best,” he said.

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