When Ameya Pawar first campaigned for 47th Ward alderman, he repeatedly heard the same plea. “We love it here,” voters would tell him, “but we need to know what you’ll do about the high schools.”
Six years later, addressing that concern is still a top priority for Pawar, whose ward encompasses much of North Center and Lincoln Square, neighborhoods popular among young, middle-class families.
Pawar has a unique perspective on Chicago’s schools. He likens the selective-enrollment system to the one his father faced in 1950s Mumbai, where children spent years “preparing for one test” to win entry to a top high school.
While Chicago’s selective-enrollment schools were created to retain middle-class families, Pawar sees them as destabilizing. When children don’t make the testing cut, some families, especially those in more affluent neighborhoods, leave the district.
“If we really want to grow our city and keep people staying here long term, then neighborhood high schools should be top of our list,” he says. “I just think urban areas get it wrong. They focus on choice — charter, selective-enrollment or magnet — instead of the link between a school and the community.”
High school total soars
The number of CPS high schools grew by a staggering 39 percent over the past decade, a time of relatively stagnant high school enrollment. Ten years ago, a quarter of high schools were privately run. Now, just over half are.
With that increased competition, enrollment at neighborhood high schools dropped by a third. Today, just over a quarter of students attend their neighborhood high school. Among those who went elsewhere, a third chose charter or contract schools, and just under one-fifth chose selective-enrollment schools, which have also expanded over time.
Things got worse for neighborhood high schools in 2013, when CPS shifted to a budgeting system that distributes school funding on a per-student basis. Leaders at schools with dwindling enrollments and decimated budgets protested, saying the district should work to improve existing neighborhood schools, instead of opening new schools.
“It’s an uphill battle to say neighborhood schools are important. … [But] just because we’ve seen decline in enrollment doesn’t mean we have to let them spiral down,” says Beatriz Ponce de León, who heads Generation All, a year-old initiative of The Chicago Community Trust to support neighborhood high schools.
“It might be time for the pendulum to swing in the other direction,” she adds.
In the absence of a citywide K-12 plan for the district, many communities have taken it upon themselves to rally support for their neighborhood high school. Usually this means stepping up their recruitment game and courting programs, funding and partnerships to make the school more attractive.
But in many communities, parents and grandparents who witnessed violence and received a poor education when they attended the neighborhood high school have to be convinced of real progress before sending their children and grandchildren there.
“We have to change their own lived experience. It’s a challenge,” says Marcey Sorensen, the principal at Clemente Community Academy in West Town, which for years has struggled with low graduation rates and safety. “That’s why we spend as much time as we do at our feeder schools — those are the parents who went here in the ’80s or ’90s.”
It doesn’t help that some neighborhood high schools have to contend with older facilities that pale in comparison to newly built schools of choice.
Competition gets a reaction
In some cases, the prospect of a new school in the neighborhood has sparked action. Last year, dueling protests broke out between parents who wanted to see a Noble charter high school in Brighton Park and those who said it would undermine improvements at the neighborhood high schools.
After CPS approved the Noble campus this past fall, Kelly High School kicked its recruitment efforts into high gear. Staff launched a “promotional tour” that stops at three elementary schools each month with several dozen Kelly students who put on musical performances and talk about their school’s International Baccalaureate (IB), dual-credit, arts and after-school offerings.
But school officials say the building needs renovations. And Kelly is in a working-class community without the private means to develop the kind of “friends of” group that assists high schools in more affluent communities.
“We have all of these wonderful opportunities,” says Kelly music teacher Eric Skalinder. “We just don’t have the support that we need to market our school effectively.”
Two proposed Noble campuses also mobilized opposition efforts in Rogers Park and Uptown — though to very different effect. Noble withdrew its Rogers Park proposal — saying it couldn’t find a suitable location — and promised to stay out of the neighborhood for five years. Later, after public protests, the CPS administration declined to put the Uptown campus to a School Board vote.
Building on the Rogers Park effort, Rebecca Weinberg launched Neighbors Love Neighborhood Schools, a small, mostly white group of young parents who meet regularly to discuss ways to support the neighborhood schools. Weinberg’s son is still in preschool, but she sees the effort as a way to build relationships and improve schools he may attend in the future.
The group focuses on small fixes that can boost a school’s reputation over time. Its members plan open houses, seek donations and apply for grants to improve buildings. The group’s target is what parent Annie Gill-Bloyer describes as the “gray area”: middle-class, college-educated parents with a “social justice orientation” who don’t want the “chaotic lifestyle” that comes with long commutes to school.
North Side improvements
Part of the Rogers Park backlash to Noble rested on the argument that a new school could undo improvements at Sullivan, the neighborhood high school.
Over the past three years, Principal Chad Adams has hustled to secure partners like the Umoja Student Development Corp. and City Year. They bring “extra bodies” into the building to assist with college counseling and address students’ social and emotional needs. Those connections also helped Adams win a grant for a new college and career lab and link up with a design firm that renovated a student-union space.
Private funds also pay for promotional billboards and public radio and TV ads. With each incremental improvement, Adams contacts Sullivan’s alderman and local news reporters. The coverage builds momentum as “more and more people call and want to meet with me,” he says.
“You eat, breathe and sweat it,” he says. “We’re not quite there yet in the classroom, but I’ve got to sell it like we are. Perceptions are reality.”
And when parents see examples of success in nearby communities, they’re more likely to trust that a similar turnaround can take place at their own neighborhood school. Improvements at Senn High School in Edgewater and Amundsen High School in Lincoln Square are sometimes held up as proof that Sullivan has the potential for change.
Amundsen is part of GROWCommunity, a regional effort that includes Pawar and two other aldermen: Patrick O’Connor, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s floor leader, and Tom Tunney. They lobby City Hall and others for resources for Amundsen and Lake View high schools and the area’s elementary schools.
Recently the aldermen helped secure millions in tax-increment financing dollars to upgrade Amundsen’s facilities and bring a science, technology, engineering and math program to Lake View. The partnership also involves the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, which provides training and resources to improve instruction.
Amundsen Principal Anna Pavichevich says GROWCommunity and Friends of Amundsen helped her school build strong relationships with elementary schools that aren’t inside Amundsen’s attendance boundaries, increasing its potential recruitment sources.
She says that since she became principal nearly four years ago, the number of elementary schools where students show a “strong interest” in Amundsen has more than doubled. In turn, Pavichevich ensures that Amundsen works with its feeder schools so that academics and expectations about behavior align.
“We’re not just waiting for 8th-graders,” she says. “The pipeline is greased, so to speak.”
A resulting benefit is that Pavichevich is now in regular communication with 15 to 20 elementary and high school principals, she says. They share ideas and provide each other with moral support. One principal calls Pavichevich every day on her way home from school to review the day’s events.
On the Far North Side, Senn is now recruiting students with its IB and arts programs. A relatively new partnership with nearby Loyola University Chicago also boosted the high school’s reputation.
Loyola offers training to Senn teachers, and popular youth media programs and scholarships for Senn students. Having a university partner sends the message to parents that a high school is serious about getting students into college and improving teaching practices, says the interim principal, Mary Beck.
However, Maurice Swinney, the principal at Tilden Career Community Academy in Canaryville, says CPS should offer more support to principals as they vet and choose partners. Better still, he says, would be an investment in permanent staff to do the work partners provide, sometimes temporarily.
“I’d rather you just give us the funding to buy the clinicians who can be in the building and work with students daily and help kids unravel deep issues,” he says. “We can’t continue down this road and expect neighborhood schools to change over time.”
Varying degrees of success
North Side efforts to improve neighborhood high schools have some distinct advantages, including financial resources and political clout. When Adams was an assistant principal at Harper High School in West Englewood on the South Side, he found far fewer local businesses and organizations to link up with.
“I’d be lying if I said it would be the same everywhere in the city,” Pawar concedes. “But every community has strengths it can leverage. Just because you don’t have the upper-middle class doesn’t mean you can’t organize.”
Yet efforts elsewhere have had varying degrees of success. Last year, Bronzeville activists helped secure the reopening of Dyett as a neighborhood high school after a weeks-long hunger strike by some community leaders. But they did not get their curriculum choice: CPS decided the South Side school would focus on the arts, rather than leadership and green technology, as activists had wanted.
In Belmont Cragin, the nonprofit Northwest Side Housing Center is leading a relatively new effort to bring parents and principals together to boost enrollment at neighborhood schools. But the effort has yet to gain wider traction.
On the West Side, a community-led effort will likely see the merger of three small high schools in Austin, with the blessings of the principals. The goal is to recreate a single, strong neighborhood high school.
Dwayne Truss, a community activist who sits on the Austin Community Action Council, says the new high school and others in the area must prioritize reaching out to elementary school counselors and principals.
“Neighborhood high schools have to stop taking it for granted that kids will automatically come,” he says. “The game has changed now, you’ve got to get in there and establish those relationships.”
It would help, he adds, if schools had more resources to do so. Principals’ time and energy are often consumed by “challenges inside the buildings and [the] many responsibilities they have.”
It’s hard to imagine that the mostly black high schools with severe under-enrollment and tiny freshmen classes could reverse those trends without outsized, targeted investments. These schools typically have other challenges, such as a high number of students with special needs or who are homeless.
District officials have not laid out any plans to aid neighborhood high schools. In a statement, Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson said in the coming months the district will “intensify our focus on quality, whether it’s neighborhood or charter schools.” She said the administration would continue to provide extra resources to under-enrolled schools to assist with course offerings. “At the same time, when communities like Austin decide that their children will receive a better education by consolidating resources, we will help them move forward,” she added.
The district set up a high school working group to look at what can be done, though members say coming up with an approach for struggling neighborhood schools has been a sticking point.
There’s also some private funding for this work, such as the $515,000 Generation All awarded to 16 projects, some of which aim to improve feeder-school patterns to boost high school enrollment.
Ponce de León, who sits on the CPS working group, says that in the past, infusions of cash bolstered “wraparound” supports, such as counseling, but didn’t make a lasting difference in academics. And often the focus was on the immediate need to maintain enrollment, instead of a longer-term plan to grow it.
“You can’t put money in for three to four years and say it’s done,” she says. “There needs to be more effort to make it a thriving school. … It does take CPS and others deciding that’s a community and a school to invest in.”
Sorensen, the Clemente principal, says her school is one CPS has supported, partly because “they feel like there is a chance here.” Four years ago, the mayor’s office announced Clemente would receive an IB program that’s open to all students, not just those who test in.
In addition, Clemente’s alderman has supported facility upgrades — recently he promised ward funds to improve the school’s baseball field — and the state representative’s advocacy paved the way for an expansion of career-oriented programs to include health sciences.
In recent years, Clemente has improved its school climate and the percentage of freshmen on track to graduate. A 10-person school team works on recruitment efforts like a new logo, billboards and days when 8th-graders can tour the building. “I feel passionately that we must get better, and that is our No. 1 recruitment tool,” Sorensen says.
But the “oversaturation” of high school options in communities like hers isn’t helping.
Sorensen says her turf is like “the land of Noble” with six campuses within a three-mile radius. She thinks she’s stopped “the bleed” of students to other neighborhood schools. Over the past two years her freshman class has grown. But the competition with nearby charters is “profound.” Even with the improvements, eight in 10 students living within Clemente’s boundaries chose another school this year.
“The only way we can compete,” she says, “is to be better.”
*Editor’s note: The “shifting to private management” graphic was updated on Feb. 17, 2016 at 11 a.m. to correct the total numbers of district-run high schools in 2005 and 2015. The previous totals (112 and 103, respectively) mistakenly counted district-run selective-enrollment high schools twice. We regret the error.