As parents begin to apply for seats in magnet and selective schools, CPS
officials on Thursday unveiled changes to the admissions process that
could set the stage for more racial and economic diversity in the
district’s most sought-after schools. As parents begin to apply for seats in magnet and selective schools, CPS officials on Thursday unveiled changes to the admissions process that could set the stage for more racial and economic diversity in the district’s most sought-after schools.

Students from neighborhoods with poor-performing schools will see an advantage under the proposed new guidelines, which will be presented at November’s Board of Education meeting. An analysis of those neighborhoods shows they are mostly black, such as New City, Englewood and Grand Boulevard.

The new guidelines would make race an indirect factor in admissions—something that officials said they were hesitant to do last year after a federal judge lifted a 20-year-old desegregation consent decree.

The recommendations were primarily the product of a blue-ribbon committee that was set up to examine the admissions process following the demise of the consent decree. The committee held three public hearings over the summer. The members included two principals, two aldermen, two community activists, a lawyer and a former monitor of the consent decree.

CEO Ron Huberman, who is stepping down at the end of this month, says he thinks that the admission policy should continue to be tweaked. “It is an evolution,” he said.

Huberman and his team are not recommending any changes to the policy concerning principal discretion because Blue Ribbon Committee members could not come to a consensus about what those changes should be. Selective enrollment school principals will still be allowed to hand-pick five percent of their students, but their decision will continue to be scrutinized by central office. Magnet school principal will still not be allowed any discretion.

With the help of school integration expert Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation, the district last year crafted a complicated new formula that attempted to take a student’s socio-economic status into account by looking at factors in the immediate neighborhood, such as median income and the presence of single-parent families.

Students were then divided into four equal groups, or tiers, based on their socio-economic standing.

But under this policy, black students lost ground in magnet and selective enrollment schools. The percentage of Latino students declined in selective enrollment elementary schools, but went up in selective enrollment high schools, mostly because of an increase in Latino admissions to Lane High School on the North Side. Latinos also secured more seats in magnet schools.

Huberman has maintained he wanted to keep diversity in the schools, but on Thursday he and others made it clear that there were other important considerations. For example, some believe best way for the district to achieve racial balance in these specialty schools is to allot 25 percent of seats to each of the four socio-economic tiers.

But the policy does not adopt that strategy. Here’s how it will work:

Less neighborhood emphasis. In response to fears that the best neighborhood magnet schools—most of them in white, middle-class neighborhoods on the North Side—would become less diverse, the proposed guidelines will set a lower benchmark for opening up seats to a general lottery. Currently, magnet schools give preference to neighborhood children, setting aside 40 percent of seats for them and giving the advantage to students in upper-income communities who live close to a magnet elementary school. Now, based on analysis of the racial mix of neighborhood students admitted, the district will stop the proximity lottery earlier and put the remaining applicants—including those from the community—into a general lottery.

Test scores still a factor. At selective enrollment schools, some seats are awarded to students with high test scores. This year, district officials are recommending that the amount be lowered from 40 percent to 30 percent, but not abandoned.

And principals at some selective enrollment elementary schools will be allowed to set cut scores. Last year, at Northside Prep, Lindblom and Whitney Young, not enough students from the lowest-income groups performed above the cut score, and their seats had to be divided among the three other socioeconomic tiers.

Some members of the committee argued that rank order and cut score provisions should be taken away for selective schools, says Cynthia Flowers, a member of the committee from the Black Star Project, a community organization.

“But district officials felt as though there were too many high-performing children who would be passed over,” she says.

On Thursday, district officials acknowledged that there’s a definite tension between principals, who want to maintain the high academic standards of their schools, and the district, which has devised an intricate policy to maintain diversity.

Huberman sides with the principals. “These schools are not about remedial education,” he said. “The very design of these schools is to put students with others who perform spectacularly well and to give them the best opportunity.”

Help for kids from the worst schools. The district is going to recommend that 5 percent of the seats for incoming freshmen at most of the selective enrollment high schools be set aside for students from the worst elementary schools. Using the No Child Left Behind transfer process, the district did this last year and gave each school that enrolled these children an extra $250,000 to provide them supports.

Abigayil Joseph, head of the Office of Academic Enhancement, says she is monitoring those students closely, trying to see what is helping them and what is not. “Some are excelling and some are struggling,” she said. 

School performance a factor. Another interesting change that might shake up the racial mix of the schools is the addition of a new factor for socio-economic status. Last year, five factors were considered. This year, the district is proposing that the test scores of attendance area schools also be factored in.

About 134 census tracts changed tiers with the addition of the new factor, said Kathryn Ellis, who is overseeing the implementation of the magnet and selective school admission process. But it’s unclear which students the change will help.

More magnet seats for siblings. One change is a bow to parents who complained about having children in more than one school. Last year, only kindergarteners who had older siblings at magnet schools were guaranteed spots with their brother or sister. This year, district officials are recommending that siblings in all grades get spots if their brother or sister is already a student at the magnet school.

Parents also complained last year about twins and other multiples being split up when one won a spot in a magnet school and the other didn’t. This year, the board is recommending that parents be allowed to link the applications of multiples, but warn that those students will only get one chance in the lottery.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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