Alderman warns of ‘re-segregation’ of top public high schools

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African-American aldermen demanded Tuesday that the Chicago Public Schools modify admissions standards at its most elite public high schools to stop a surge of white enrollment at the expense of black students.

Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th), chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, said she’s concerned that a federal judge’s 2009 decision to vacate a desegregation consent decree has slowly resulted in “re-segregation” of the Chicago Public Schools.

“Any time you’re talking about racial diversity in schools or anywhere, you’ve got to have race as part of the standard. That’s my opinion. I haven’t heard anything to change my mind,” said Thomas during a City Council hearing on the issue.

“Now that you’ve taken race out for four years and saw [the adverse impact], race can be one of the factors. Before, it was one of two factors. Now, race can be one of six or maybe seven factors you use, so it’s not weighted as heavily as it was before. Your legal consultants should be exploring that with the idea that, when you took race out, we were falling backwards. Now, we have justification.”

Katie Ellis, executive director of the CPS Office of Access and Enrollment, replied, “I will certainly bring that up… We actually do have our outside law firm doing another landscape [check] to find what they would consider permissible uses of race.”

RELATED: Whites getting more spots at top Chicago public high schools

Ald. Will Burns (4th) agreed that something dramatic needs to be done to address the adverse impact of a tiered admissions system put in place after the desegregation consent decree was vacated.

“The current system does not use race as a factor at all in admissions, yet there are cities that have included race as one of many factors,” Burns said.

“There was concern about whether a system that used race in admissions could withstand scrutiny. I want them to research it. It could be a way to achieve better balance. Minority enrollment is high throughout the system, but it tapers off in schools in certain parts of the city. That’s not what any of us want. Chicagoans value fairness. Chicagoans value diversity.”

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) raised the possibility of doubling — to 10 percent — the discretionary picks afforded to principals at selective enrollment high schools. The so-called “principal pick” once was 10 percent, but was reduced to 5 percent after a clout admissions scandal.

“Have you thought about increasing principal discretion to what it was originally? I’m sure that, by now, you have controls in place to prevent principals from going off the reservation so to speak and being subjects of investigations?” Dowell said.

Ellis said the idea of restoring the 10 percent principal pick “comes up every year,” but, there is “a lot of liability” associated with it.

“The challenge of principal discretion is, you’re taking away seats that can be given out through the regular process….If your principal is not aligned with your objectives, they’re not necessarily gonna pick up kids that would solve this problem,” Ellis said.

Three months ago, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that white admissions have been climbing over the last four years at Walter Payton College Prep, Jones College Prep, Northside College Prep and Whitney Young College Prep.

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.

Burns and Dowell were so troubled by the decline, they demanded City Council hearings with an eye toward modifying the controversial “socio-economic criteria” put in place when the consent decree was lifted.

The stakes are high. Emanuel is using $17 million in tax-increment-financing (TIF) funds to expand Walter Payton College Prep 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 would be named after President Barack Obama.

On Tuesday, CPS Chief Accountability Officer John Barker argued that minority enrollment at all 10 selective high schools has increased — from 75.7 percent the year before the consent decree was vacated to 78.5 percent last year.

He urged aldermen to “look beyond” the top four selective enrollment high schools and consider what’s happening at all ten, some of which are on the cusp of becoming educational “gems.”

Short-term, CPS officials vowed to bolster recruitment of “highly-qualified” black students at selective enrollment high schools on the North Side while improving the competitiveness of and marketing by selective enrollment schools on the South Side.

Long term, they talked about exploring potential changes to the admissions policy after reviewing recent court cases and best practices from other cities.

Possibilities include using “block-level” data instead of census tracts and moving to a “single enrollment system” to optimize student assignment.

They also talked about using early childhood education, the longer school day, common core curriculum, International Baccalaureate and STEM programs to increase the pipeline of black students qualified to attend selective enrollment schools.

Dowell said that flies in the face of what’s going on in the trenches. 

“Right now, through your budgeting process, you’re decreasing dollars to schools that actually have IB programs. Your actions seem to go against the policy that you’re trying to implement in these schools,” she said.

On the day after she introduced the resolution, Dowell had said she had yet to hear a “good explanation” for declining black enrollment at Chicago’s top four selective enrollment high schools at a time when the African-American student body is up at all 10 selective enrollment high schools. 

“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,” Dowell said then.

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.”

Under the current system, 20 percent of the seats at each of Chicago’s 10 selective-enrollment high schools go to the students with the highest scores.

The other 80 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.

The system doesn’t always fulfill its goal, though, 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.

CPS spokesman Joel Hood said Dowell’s statement about budget cuts is “just flat out wrong.”

In an email statement, Hood wrote, “IB schools, like every school in CPS, is funded based on student enrollment. IB schools with increasing enrollment, and there are dozens of them, are getting more funding this year. Schools with declining enrollment see less funding.”

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