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Study finds success beyond selective CPS schools; students agree

Victoria Sotirova, 17, could have gone to Lane Tech but is happy she turned down the chance to go to one of the Chicago Public Schools' 11 highly competitive, selective-enrollment high schools to stay at Amundsen High School. | Max Herman / Sun-Times

Victoria Sotirova was devastated when she missed the cutoff score to get in to Lane Tech High School by a few lousy points.

The teenager, who’d led her class at Budlong Elementary School, had her heart set on the selective North Side high school. But while awaiting a possible principal discretion slot, she resigned herself to going to her neighborhood school, Amundsen High School, 5110 N. Damen, and entered an International Baccalaureate program there that demands critical thinking and tons of reading.

A few months later, Lane Tech called with an opening. But Victoria turned them down, convinced she’d landed in a better place.

“The teachers were so guiding, the principal was so involved, and the atmosphere was not what I expected it to be,” she says of Amundsen, which has alumni currently attending Harvard, Tufts and Northwestern on full rides. “What had changed my mind, basically, was realizing that I likely would not stick out at a large school like Lane Tech, and Amundsen would provide me with the opportunity to showcase who I am. And that would help me be successful.”

A senior now, the 17-year-old has a 4.0 GPA and is a finalist for a full-tuition scholarship to Pomona College, a highly selective liberal arts school in California. She’s the student rep on the Local School Council and traveled to Japan last summer on an exchange program.

New research supports her choice, finding that go-getters who end up at neighborhood high schools might be doing themselves a favor. They don’t have to go to one of the Chicago Public Schools’ 11 highly competitive, selective-enrollment schools to be academically successful, according to a new study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The researchers also found that low-income students generally get poorer grades at the high schools that require tests to get in than at strong open-enrollment and charter schools — and the resulting lower GPA could hamper their chances of going to selective colleges.   

“These kids are high-performing and they will do well either in the selective-enrollment high schools or in other places as well,” says Marisa de la Torre, one of the study’s authors.

“It’s really stressful going through the process of selecting a high school,” de la Torre says, adding that what the study found “maybe relieves a little bit of the pressure on the families.”

The flip side of the findings is that those selective schools, which aim to raise achievement across the city, haven’t helped close the academic gap between wealthy and poor students — though low-income students reported other benefits from snagging a coveted spot.

“If you focus on the environment that the students experience every single day, we see that they really have a much better experience,” de la Torre says. “They feel safer, they report better relationships with their peers and the students, and I feel that that has to count for something.”

In recent years, CPS has added capacity at its elite schools, pointing to parent demand and an ability to educate smart kids citywide. That included plans to build a 12th school intended to be named for President Barack Obama — plans dropped amid falling enrollment, public dissent and CPS’s continuing money troubles. CPS also just unveiled a new $20 million annex at Walter Payton College Prep High School in Old Town. And it converted a successful open-enrollment Southwest Side high school — Hancock College Preparatory High School — into one that requires an application.

A coalition of aldermen has stepped up pressure in recent years to improve resources for open-enrollment schools, arguing that parents don’t want to subject kids as young as 12 to the stress of competing for admission.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has defended his expansion plans, saying parents clamor for the limited number of seats at the selective schools. 

While the schools draw citywide and offer admission to students from four distinct socioeconomic tiers, most tend to have a wealthier and whiter student body than CPS overall

Janice Jackson — a top CPS official who was a principal at a selective school as well as at a neighborhood high school — says she has a comprehensive plan for the city’s secondary schools, though she hasn’t revealed details. But Jackson says that CPS will bolster investments in the open-enrollment schools.

“You can get a high-quality education in various types of schools in Chicago,” Jackson says. “I think that’s going to be a challenging assertion for some people because people talk about the tale of two cities all the time and the two-tier system, that you’ve got to get in to selective enrollment to even have a shot.

“And this tells us that our kids have a shot if they get in to the right school,” she says of the U. of C. findings, “and that all these other things matter.”

Jackson says the study will prompt CPS to examine why low-income students aren’t as successful at selective high schools.

“They went through the rigorous application process and made it — everyone knows how crazy that application process could be — so they have the potential,” she says. “But what supports do they need in order to be successful so they can realize that dream?”

Unlike other cities that have test-in schools, CPS — the country’s third-largest public school system — uses socioeconomic status in making admission decisions and reserves seats for students living in low-income census tracts.

So de la Torre and colleagues compared 20,000 students who started high school between 2010 and 2013  — those in selective schools and those who just missed admission cutoffs and chose solid neighborhood or charter schools.

The researchers wouldn’t release the full list of high schools they consider high-performing, citing privacy concerns, nor would they say how many they deem CPS to have. But they cited Lincoln Park High School as one example of a school whose ACT scores and graduation rates outpace CPS averages.

Sharyl Barnes, who coordinates the international baccalaureate program at Curie Metropolitan High School, says she struggles to get parents to look beyond the fact that Curie doesn’t have selective enrollment. The Southwest Side school is a few steps short of CPS’ top rating, but it offers options, including the tough academics of the IB program, that makes it like “a private school education for free,” Barnes says.

“That’s what makes it great — everyone has a place,” she says. “We take time. They deserve it.”

Curie High School students leave campus on Friday afternoon. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times

Curie High School offers options like an international baccalaureate program that makes it like “a private school education for free,” says Sharyl Barnes, who coordinates the program. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times

Senior Karina Mireya Martinez, 17, says she’s benefited from what Curie has to offer, which also includes a robust college support center. She joined the IB program after just missing the selective-enrollment cutoff. She says the program pushes her hard but already has paid off: She just got an acceptance letter to her first-choice college, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she plans to study political science.

Recent Juarez Academy graduate Sherelin Garduno is now at the University of Illinois at Chicago, studying to become a high school math teacher. She had gotten in to selective Jones College Prep and Whitney Young but ended up at Juarez after a Catholic school stint didn’t work out.

The support she found there — including a required senior seminar on how to apply to college — helped her get in to 15 of the 16 colleges she applied to. So did the wider range of students there, she says.

“The reason why selective-enrollment students don’t get accepted to certain colleges is because of the competition within their school,” the 18-year-old says. “So you’re competing with a lot of the smartest kids in the city. At Juarez, where test scores are a little bit lower, you can stand out more.”