[A Spanish-language version of this story was published in the Nov. 25 edition of Extra newspaper.]

Kenneth Green knew he wanted to send his daughter to a magnet school, Chicago’s oldest schools of choice. He spent hours enveloped in research and touring campuses, trying to find the right combination of high academic expectations and a diverse racial mix.

He found what he wanted in Franklin Fine Arts Academy on the Near North Side. “I liked the feel of the building, the fact it was set back from the street and that it was a small school,” Green says.

Along with strong academics and a good climate, a school’s diversity can be a powerful draw for parents like Green, who want their children to attend multi-racial, multi-ethnic schools that mirror the real world. These parents are more likely to opt for an integrated school when choosing among several options. Green, whose wife is Latina, rejected Sabin Elementary, a mostly Latino magnet school closer to his home in Humboldt Park.

But many magnets, like Franklin, are becoming less diverse. And magnets are becoming lower-performing in general.

Twenty years ago, in the heyday of the magnet program, 25 of 28 elementary magnets were racially mixed (with no predominant racial group) and 22 of the 28 ranked among the top 100 elementary schools. But now, in 2008, just 10 of 27 magnets are racially mixed and among the top 100 schools. The remaining 17 are either predominantly black or Latino, and just five of them are among the top 100 schools.

(Nine magnets have been created in the past two years, but are not included in the analysis because they do not have complete data.)
There still exists a cadre of 15 high-performing sought-after elementary magnet schools. Franklin is among them, and has just one seat available for every 14 applications.

But in the top 10 high-demand magnet schools, the share of black and Latino students has fallen over the past two decades, to 45 percent from 65 percent. Only 40 percent of students in these high-demand magnets are low-income, compared to 83 percent districtwide. A similar phenomenon is taking place in the city’s magnet and selective high schools. (See Catalyst, November 2007.)

Latinos are especially underrepresented in magnet schools, a phenomenon that was first noted in a 2000 report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Since then, while the percentage of Latinos in all elementary schools has risen to 42 percent, the percentage in magnets has remained at just under 30 percent.

These schools are the crown jewels of what CPS has to offer, says Ricardo Meza, midwest regional counsel for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. It frustrates him that so few Latinos win spots in them.

Finding these schools and understanding how to get into them is complicated for any parent, especially those who don’t speak English well and are poorly educated, Meza says. 

“These schools are popular, and the biggest problem we face as a community is that, though we are large in number, our resources and our access are limited,” he says.

Green believes that for some Latino families, especially new immigrants, magnets may be intimidating. One Latino family he knew didn’t like having to ask for everything to be translated into Spanish, Green recalls, and eventually moved their daughter back to a neighborhood school from Franklin.

There are other pressures that might make families uncomfortable. For example, parents at Franklin set a goal this year of raising $70,000, asking parents to support fundraisers and donate cash—cash that, as Green observes, some families may not have.

An additional nine magnet schools have opened up in the past two years. This year, to create new schools of choice and attract parents, CPS sought to capitalize on the popularity of some of the most sought-after magnets by “franchising” them. Two of the franchises, however, opened in gentrifying, increasingly white neighborhoods. A third never opened at all.

CPS opened Disney II, named after the city’s oldest magnet and featuring an open-space environment and team teaching, on the campus of under-utilized Irving Park Middle School. LaSalle II, which gets its name from a foreign language school on the Gold Coast, opened up in another underused school, Andersen in Wicker Park.

LaSalle II took in the students who would have otherwise gone to Andersen, and still has a mostly Latino enrollment. But Principal Suzanne Velasquez-Sheehy theorizes that in the future, the ‘franchise’ will be a draw for the changing neighborhood. LaSalle II, like the original LaSalle, provides daily instruction for students in a foreign language, though the languages offered at the two schools are different.

“LaSalle has a very good name,” she says. “A lot of the new families have young children, and they seem very interested in LaSalle II. I think we can attract them.”

Some magnets that CPS has created in minority communities have yet to show substantial achievement gains.

CPS used part of a $9 million federal magnet schools grant to transform struggling Smyth Elementary on the Near West Side into a magnet with International Baccalaureate programs. Principal Ronald Whitmore says the cash has been a boon to help improve the school. Teachers are undergoing training in the rigorous IB curriculum as they prepare for the accreditation process. Events and outside speakers are brought in to infuse an international feel into the school. And Smyth now has two technology labs and two science labs. 

Although students do not have to take an admissions test (the International Baccalaureate Organization, stresses equal access for all students), and Smyth enrolls children from the neighborhood, the school is considered a magnet and will take students from outside its attendance boundary. But Whitmore says few have applied so far, although he has put ads in local newspapers and talked to real estate developers about the school, offering to take new residents on tours.

Smyth remains one of the lower-performing schools in the district, with only 38 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards in reading in 2007. Despite the tidy new mixed-income condos and townhomes that have replaced the public housing project that used to surround Smyth, the school is still 98 percent black and 93 percent low-income.

Whitmore is quick to say that the quality of education is on the rise. “I don’t care if we have black, orange or purple children,” he says.

This fall, Green was among about 50 parents who attended an informational session about CPS’ bid to have the desegregation consent decree lifted, a move that could have a substantial impact on how magnets schools operate. In January, U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras will again consider whether to let CPS out of the decree; he has indicated that he is open to doing so. Magnet programs are funded with cash set aside because of the desegregation order.

The session was organized by parents from Drummond, a magnet school with a Montessori curriculum that opened in Logan Square. Drummond parents are concerned that the school, in a gentrifying neighborhood, is likely to become all-white if the decree is lifted.

Already, Green observes, the opportunities for black and Latino students in the best of the magnet schools are too few and far between. After submitting an application to at least a dozen schools and losing all those lotteries, Green won a spot for his daughter at Franklin by making daily calls to Arne Duncan, who was the head of academic enhancement at the time.

That was nine years ago, and Green’s daughter, Xiomara, graduated from Franklin Fine Arts in June. Like elementary magnets, competition to get into high-performing high schools is intense.

So this time, Green took a different route, abandoning the oldest of the district’s choices for one of the the newest ones: He enrolled his daughter in a charter school, the University of Illinois at Chicago College Prep.


Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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