Aldermen demand hearings into selective enrollment criteria

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Two South Side aldermen are demanding City Council hearings into selective enrollment standards at Chicago’s most elite public high schools amid reports of surging white enrollment at the expense of African-American students.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that white admissions have been climbing over the last four years at the city’s most desirable college preparatory high schools: Walter Payton, Jones,  Northside and Whitney Young.

The increase in white freshmen — from 29 to 41 percent at Payton and nearly that much at the other three marquee high schools — coincides with a federal judge’s 2009 decision to lift a 1980 consent decree that had required Chicago Public Schools to be desegregated with no school being more than 35 percent white.

Aldermen Pat Dowell (3rd) and Will Burns (4th) are so troubled by the decline, they’re demanding City Council hearings with an eye toward modifying the controversial “socio-economic criteria” put in place when the consent decree was lifted.

“African-American student enrollment has declined at the top four selective enrollment schools, even though the African-American population is up at all 10 [selective high schools]. I want to know why that’s the case. I haven’t heard a good explanation,” said Dowell, who introduced the resolution at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

“African-Americans make up a large portion of the population of this city. We should have an opportunity, as other nationalities do, to have seats in all of the selective enrollment schools, including the top four. The formula we’re working under now grew out of a decree. This formula has not been, to my knowledge, looked at since it was created. Maybe we need to modify the formula.”

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, has argued that the surging white enrollment that education reformers feared when the consent decree was lifted has turned the top four schools into “gated communities for children of privilege.”

Dowell is not about to use such divisive language. She just wants results.

“I’m not looking at the gated community thing. I’m looking at creating pipelines to colleges across this country,” she said.

“If you come out of one of these selective enrollment schools — especially top-tier ones — you’re pretty much guaranteed a seat at a good college anywhere in this country. We need to make sure our children, African-American children, have access to that pipeline.”

Burns could not be reached for comment.

Under the current system, 30 percent of the seats at each of Chicago’s ten selective-enrollment high schools go to the students with the highest scores.

The other 70 percent are chosen based on their test scores — as well as a formula that CPS created to divide the city into four “tiers” based on the census tracts where students live.

Each tier includes about 109,000 students. The tiers are recalculated every year based on five socioeconomic benchmarks: median household income, adult education levels and the percentages of single-parent households, owner-occupied homes and non-English speakers.

The system is supposed to make it easier for students from lower-income families to find a spot in a selective-enrollment high school. So, on average, students from the higher tiers must have better scores than those in the lower tiers.

However, the system doesn’t always fulfill its goal of placing lower-income students on a more-level playing field with students from richer families, the Sun-Times analysis found. In some cases, students from lower-income areas are in the same tier with students from the city’s wealthiest areas.

On Thursday, Dowell noted that Education Committee hearings on the socio-economic formula were contentious during the Daley years and African-American aldermen feared the worst.

The hearings are certain to be equally controversial this time, considering what’s at stake.

Emanuel is using $17 million in tax-increment-financing (TIF) funds to expand Payton by 400 seats and using another $60 million in TIF money to build a new selective enrollment high school for 1,200 students nearby. That new school would be named after President Barack Obama.

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