clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Take it from a teacher: So many Chicago public schools are not public at all

It’s time for parents and students to ask tough questions about the district’s enrollment practices. Testing and lottery luck should not play a part in school admissions.

Chicago Public Schools headquarters
Chicago Public Schools headquarters.
Sun-Times file photo

I’ll admit it. For a major portion of my career as a Chicago Public Schools educator, I was a public school hypocrite.

In fact, the entire district is hypocritical when it comes to its enrollment practices. And if CPS is to live up to its repeated promises to focus on equity, so every child has the opportunity to get a good education, those practices must change.

During my childhood and adolescence, I attended public schools in Lockport, a small suburb just 40 minutes from Chicago. My high school enrolled, and still does, nearly every high school-aged young adult who lived within its attendance boundary, save for a small percentage who attend a Catholic school in another town.

After college, my first teaching job was at Corliss High School, a neighborhood school in Roseland on the South Side. At Corliss, I began to see, first-hand, how public schools in Chicago operate much differently from suburban public schools and often leave children out in the cold.

Corliss was a neighborhood school, but it was losing neighborhood students. Some simply chose schools in other communities. Students with high test scores scrambled to get into elite, better-funded, selective schools, like Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, which had just been built.

I thought it was strange that a selective school was still considered a public school even though it was open only to students who met a certain test score threshold. Only a small percentage of students in the neighborhood qualified.

Three years after I started at Corliss, an assistant principal left to open a brand-new school. I joined her at TEAM Englewood, which admitted students via a lottery.

It was my first step toward being a public school hypocrite.

I remember telling others about the lottery admissions system, which was adopted by charters and other new schools then opening across the city. Many of those I spoke to were puzzled by the fact that TEAM Englewood was considered a public school, given its enrollment policy.

During one conversation, the pre-teen I was talking with asked, “So you have to be lucky to attend?”

“Yes. I guess that’s true,” was all I could say in response. Ironically, TEAM Englewood eventually closed, due to low enrollment.

After TEAM Englewood, I wanted a more secure position at a school with a growing enrollment. So I took a teaching job at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a selective school in Englewood that enrolled only around 15% of students from the surrounding community.

I loved my time at Lindblom, and I still have great respect for the students and faculty. But I was well aware that I was teaching an elite population, and that children in true neighborhood schools needed veteran teachers too, like myself and my colleagues. Yet at the time, neighborhood schools were rapidly losing students and money, forcing principals to hire inexperienced teachers and cut academic programs.

Students lost out educationally, simply because they couldn’t pass a test or win a lottery.

I recently left CPS for East Leyden High School, a public high school just outside Chicago. Much like the high school I had attended, it does not “test in” students, admit them via lottery or limit enrollment in any way. We are open to every student within our attendance boundary.

Our parents and students are not forced to navigate an obstacle course of choices to find a high school — because the neighborhood school is struggling — and then hope to get their top choice, which is how the CPS registration system works. Testing and lottery luck are not part of the equation.

As a former Chicagoan and Chicago teacher, I failed to question these practices because they are the status quo. But I urge teachers, parents, and students to ask those questions now.

Are selective schools truly public schools? Why should children and families have to rely on luck to get into a school?

The answers CPS gives will show how serious they are about equity for every child.

Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in CPS for 15 years. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva