How we researched Chicago student transfer patterns

Across the South and West sides, dozens of emptied neighborhood schools — many of which the city has yet to repurpose — stand out as a conspicuous reminder that African-American families are moving out of Chicago by the thousands.

After exploring the impact of the school closings issue in our yearlong series, Empty Schools, Empty Promises, the Reporter asked the natural follow-up question: What’s next for those students who left Chicago Public Schools?


Thousands of black students leave Chicago for other segregated districts

Kalyn Belsha’s latest reporting focuses on families who left Chicago but stayed in the metro area. She found that about a third of students leaving segregated, low-income Chicago schools end up back in majority black and poor suburban schools. Some of these cash-strapped districts, located in the near south suburbs and northwest Indiana, struggle to provide the instructional and social supports their new students need.


To research this story, we submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the Illinois State Board of Education for eight years of transfer records (mid-2009 through mid-2017) from CPS to other Illinois districts, which includes transfer records for schools that have since closed. We combined that data set with demographic information on every school in the state.

The records were organized in multiple tables, which we linked together in a relational database. We added more information about Chicago schools and community area demographics to help our analysis.

There were limitations to the data. For instance, ISBE records do not indicate the transferring student’s race, ethnicity or income. To report on the general migration of African-American students from low-income households, we ran specific queries that focused on CPS schools with populations that are at least 80 percent black and 80 percent low-income. (There are around 260 schools that fit this description.)

We concentrated our analysis on these segregated schools and looked at the destinations where their students tended to transfer. We ranked the receiving districts by this transfer volume as a share of their total student population — a basic metric to determine which school districts we wanted to assess more closely.

Finally, ISBE’s data did not reliably track transfers out of state, which presented a challenge because we wanted to measure the movement of students from Chicago to northwest Indiana. To work around that, we filed Access to Public Records Act requests to 14 Indiana school districts. Only one, East Chicago, provided detailed data. Located just a couple miles outside city limits, East Chicago reported that it had taken in at least 370 African-American CPS students since 2010.

We’ve published our analysis on GitHub, as well as a list of the top 50 Illinois school districts receiving students from low-income, predominantly black schools.