Increasingly over the past two decades, Chicago’s public high schools have become a system of choice, with 55 percent of students attending schools outside their neighborhoods.

Drawn by a growing array of selective magnet schools and programs, high school students and their parents are voting with their feet.

Fifteen year-old Tranette Williams lives near Austin High School but applied to two magnet schools and three magnet programs. “I really, really, really don’t want to go to Austin,” she says, noting the school’s poor academic reputation. “So it was good for me to have all those different choices.”

However, choice Chicago style has dug a deep hole for Austin and many other high schools on the West and South sides. These schools have been left with predominantly low-achieving students and a disproportionate share of special education students.

The 12 “least popular” schools in this group are losing 62 to 77 percent of students in their attendance boundaries to other CPS high schools, according to a Catalyst analysis of 2000-01 School Board data. They are Austin, Manley and Orr high schools on the West Side, and Calumet, Bowen, Englewood, Fenger, Harlan, Robeson, South Shore, Tilden and Phillips on the South Side.

Many of the fleeing students are the better ones. Of the 22,000 students who left the attendance areas of these 12 schools last year, 40 percent got into selective schools, and at least 15 percent got into selective programs, according to the Catalyst analysis. All 12 schools are on academic probation, and three are on intervention, a more severe sanction for low test scores.

Left with a huge concentration of hard-to-teach students, the 12 neighborhood schools find themselves in a vicious cycle. They don’t have enough students for classes that might attract better-prepared students, and they have a hard time attracting and keeping a faculty that can move current students into higher-level classes.

In such schools, says G. Alfred Hess Jr. of Northwestern University, “You don’t have any honors classes to speak of. You don’t have AP classes. You probably don’t have physics. You have only one foreign language.”

You also have a bad reputation

“She doesn’t want to go to Calumet,” insists Mary Towns, a school lunchroom manager who has custody of her 8th-grade granddaughter. “She says that Calumet is for children who barely passed the [Iowa Tests of Basic Skills] to get out of grammar school. If she don’t want to go there, I’m not going to force her.”

“That’s where all the bad kids go,” agrees Denise Harris, mother of an 8th-grade boy. “It’s the school they make everybody go to if they got bad grades. That’s what most of the parents say.”

Once solidified, a school’s reputation is difficult to overcome. “I used to hate telling anyone I went to Harlan,” says Linda Gore, a stay-at-home mom in the Roseland community who left the school in 1989. “They used to be like, ‘That’s the dummy high school. That’s where all the dummies go.’ That’s why I told my son, ‘You’re either going to Hyde Park or Whitney Young.'”

Drain on teachers

A high concentration of low-achieving students takes a toll on teachers. “There are more discipline problems, less support from parents, students are less prepared,” explains Principal James Breashears of Robeson High School in Englewood. “It causes a tremendous drain on teachers. It’s very hard to keep them.”

Skilled principals are harder to attract, too. Since 1997, the School Board has removed about 17 principals from high schools on academic probation, according to the Office of Accountability. Few experienced administrators leaped to take their places, says Albert Foster, who recently retired from directing the board’s school intervention efforts. Taking on a failing high school can be a career buster for a previously successful principal, he explains. “Why gamble?”

Adding to the burden, schools that lose lots of neighborhood students are left with a larger share of special education students. Last year, the 12 least popular schools had enrollments that were 18 to 28 percent special education students. The median for high schools was 15 percent, excluding special education, alternative and charter schools. Elite magnet schools enrolled as little as 1 to 2 percent.

Under a 1998 federal lawsuit settlement, the School Board has pushed schools to include more special education students in regular classes—plaintiffs had accused the board of illegally keeping students out. (See CATALYST, June 1998.) The board recommends having a special education teacher work alongside a regular subject teacher to help modify lessons for the students with disabilities.

“Quite frankly, that never happens,” says Kymara Chase, director of DePaul University’s School Achievement Structure, which partners with schools on academic probation. “What happens is a special ed teacher sits there and watches the teacher.”

For one, she says, the special education teacher may not be knowledgeable about the subject area. In addition, a shortage of special education teachers both locally and nationally has forced many schools to fill those positions with aides and substitute teachers. As of mid-November, about 100 budgeted high school special education positions remained vacant, according to the Office of Specialized Services.

Herself a former high school special education teacher, Chase sees the concentration of students with disabilities in certain schools as one of the biggest obstacles to their raising achievement levels and getting off probation.

Large numbers of disabled students in a classroom slow instruction for the rest, explains Betty Hammond, lead math teacher at South Shore High School. A typical class at South Shore has 28 students; 10 to 12 of them have learning disabilities, and another two or three have behavioral disorders, according to Hammond. The learning disabled read on a 4th- to 6th-grade level, and the behavior disordered cause frequent disruptions, she reports. “You can’t get through the material that should be covered.”

South Shore is one of five Chicago high schools on both probation and intervention. Hammond, who is on the board-appointed intervention team, says that under these conditions, getting the school off intervention and then probation is “going to be very, very difficult.”

In the wake of the 1998 lawsuit settlement, the School Board also has attempted to even out the distribution of special education students among high schools, but Sue Gamm, chief of specialized services, is dissatisfied with the progress. Currently, the percentage of students with disabilities in a school’s freshman class, the board’s target, ranges from 4 to 33 percent. Selective magnet and vocational schools have the lowest percentages.

To encourage selective high schools to take more special education students, Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan ordered principals in late October to go beyond test scores in granting admission to special education students. In addition to scores, Duncan’s memo said, principals should consider factors such as grades and attendance.

However, Gamm says the biggest challenge has been to convince parents of disabled children to enroll them outside their neighborhoods. “As a general rule, kids with disabilities have issues with change and taking risks,” she explains.

Gamm believes that the only way to reduce high special education concentrations is for the schools to recruit more regular education students.

Desegregation trigger

Shifting demographics during the 1960s and 1970s also played a role in the gradual decline of some neighborhood high schools that once had solid reputations. Middle-class families moved out, and lower-income residents took their place.

During those decades, most high school students remained in their neighborhoods, although vocational high schools and two highly selective technical schools also were options.

Many educators point to the Board of Education’s 1980 desegregation consent decree as the turning point. A major thrust was to create high-quality schools and programs that would draw white and minority students together from their racially segregated neighborhoods. School desegregation proved a losing battle; during the ’80s, white enrollment continued to decline, leveling off at around 10 percent. However, magnet programs thrived.

In the late 1990s, magnet schools got their biggest boost in a decade as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s school team sought to keep more middle-class families in the city and to attract top students from the city’s non-public schools. Six new college prep high schools and a military academy opened, all with selective enrollments.

Contrary to popular belief, these new magnet schools did not substantially impact neighborhood high schools. Students are no more likely to leave their neighborhood schools now than in 1994, School Board data show. Since the advent of college preps, the only high schools that have seen a noticeable drop in top-scoring entering freshmen are three selective ones, Whitney Young, Lane Technical and Kenwood Academy, according to the CATALYST analysis.

Paul Vallas, Daley’s first school chief, also expanded magnet programs in neighborhood schools. This time, the intent was to persuade top students to enroll in their neighborhood high schools.

So far, the approach has done little to help the 12 high schools losing the most students. The most challenging magnet program with the highest entry requirements-the International Baccalaureate (IB) program-has gone to only one of these schools, Austin.

Some schools opted not to apply because they lacked qualified students. “We could have IB programs if we had students who could qualify for IB,” explains Principal Beverly LaCoste of Phillips High School in Douglas.

Instead, IB generally has gone to schools on the north, northwest and southwest sides that already were retaining relatively large percentages of their neighborhood students.

Math, Science, and Technology Academies (MSTA), which have lower admission requirements than IB, were placed mostly in schools having difficulty recruiting neighborhood kids.

Five of the 12 schools hemorrhaging students got this program. But the MSTAs lack a recruiting edge enjoyed by IB programs, which receive the names and home addresses of 8th-graders in their region of the city who qualify for their programs. Central office offers no such recruitment help to the academies.

The School Board has no official entrance requirements for other magnet programs but has permitted schools to set their own. Again, schools that are more successful in attracting students are able to set higher admission standards. For example, Kenwood and Morgan Park require above-average standardized test scores for entrance to their Language and Career Academies, where students study four years of foreign language and learn skills in international fields such as business, tourism or engineering.

In contrast, Tilden and Robeson, which are among the 12 least popular schools, have open admission to these programs.

Still, the programs have given troubled schools a recruiting advantage that they did not have before.

“At least it gave schools like Robeson a chance,” says principal Breashears. Some good students have enrolled who otherwise would not have enrolled, he believes.

But his special programs fill most of their seats with below-grade-level students, he says. “It by no means leveled the playing field.”

Making their pitch

In recent years, neighborhood high schools have made a greater investment in recruitment. Virtually every freshman counselor and magnet program coordinator makes the rounds of feeder elementary schools in the months before the January deadline for applying to high schools. Often they bring along students, sometimes decked out in junior ROTC uniforms or MSTA T-shirts. Each high school holds an open house. Eighth-graders are invited to shadow a high school student for a day.

Some schools have gotten creative. Before Robeson had magnet programs, Breashears hired a German teacher for one year for three of nearby elementary schools. His hope was that students would then choose Robeson for its German program, a language not offered at every high school. Only one elementary school paid to retain that teacher, but Robeson now receives a large part of its enrollment from that school, Breashears reports.

Tilden High School in New City hired a teacher who speaks Cantonese and Taiwanese to help recruit students from Chinatown elementary schools. “We want more diversity in the building, but we did realize they have high scores in math,” says Edward Spikes, who coordinates Tilden’s vocational magnet program. So far, the school has enrolled at least a dozen students from Chinatown, he says.

And Phillips High School in Douglas, which last year lost 1,240 students to 57 other CPS high schools, asked the Illinois Institute of Technology, its MSTA partner, to sponsor a ballroom banquet for neighborhood 8th-graders and their parents. The result: 28 freshmen with grade-level test scores enrolled, the principal reports.

More magnets

The overwhelming majority of Chicago’s neighborhood high schools have magnet programs, with many having two or three. The few that do not—and are not overcrowded—believe they’re at a disadvantage.

“I have worked the High School Fair, and it does hurt us that we’re not in there,” says Essie Flennoy, a teacher at DuSable High School in Grand Boulevard, which last year lost 57 percent of neighborhood students. “They think we don’t have anything special to offer.”

Despite the drain on neighborhood schools, no one is pushing for an end to magnets. “Speaking from a parent perspective, people need to have choices,” says Phillips Principal LaCoste.

Harvard University Professor Gary Orfield, who monitored Chicago’s desegregation efforts, notes that American cities lacking magnet schools in the 1980s saw a massive outward migration of middle-class black and Latino families. “Once you accept the level of extreme [economic] segregation that Chicago has, you basically have only bad choices and worse choices,” he notes.

Donald Moore of Designs for Change, however, believes that high-quality magnet schools should not be limited to the best-prepared students. He would like to see an open lottery for admission to the city’s elite magnet high schools.

“The problem is, the best teachers and the most resources are focused on the students who already have the most going for them,” he says.

Others would just focus on helping schools that get the short end of the choice stick do a better job with the kids they’ve got.

Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan says schools that are not attracting students need help on three fronts: improving building facilities, developing leadership and strengthening relationships with feeder elementary schools. The board is assisting schools with all three, he says. For instance, a professional development program called LAUNCH trains 30 prospective principals each year. And high schools with Math, Science and Technology Academies receive funds to run programs such as math workshops for neighborhood 8th-graders.

But he also believes that the problems created by choice can be solved in large part by offering more choices. He wants to expand the programs created by his predecessor, Paul Vallas, and to create new ones. When adding magnet programs, says Duncan, he will respond to market demand. “We want to see what our customers—our parents and students—want.”

Deborah Lynch, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, proposes a different approach. She would spend money on recruiting more and better teachers for neighborhood schools instead of adding new magnet programs. “A qualified teacher and lower class size will boost student achievement and make the schools more attractive. Instead of all the bells and whistles, let’s get down to the basics.”

Lifting the city residency requirement for special education teachers and paying them for a longer day to complete paperwork might make the job more appealing and help ease that shortage, she adds.

The University of Chicago’s Melissa Roderick, who the board just hired to direct strategic planning, believes that high schools filled with low-achieving students need a dramatic reorganization. One strategy is to divide the faculty into smaller semi-autonomous schools within the same school building. The idea is to get teachers excited about finding new ways to reach the needier kids, she says.

John Ayers of Leadership for Quality Education thinks that before some schools can successfully be divided into small schools, they need to shut down and reopen with new staff. Decades of failure have created a culture of low expectations, he believes.

“At some schools, the culture is irremediable. It’s a harsh thing to say. But it may be that turning around some of these places demands a more radical take.”

Interns Sarah Mauet and Catrin Einhorn

contributed to this story.

Elizabeth Duffrin can be reached at

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.