Once intended to spur integration, Chicago’s magnet schools are now promoted simply as specialized educational options. Some elementary magnets still have diverse enrollments, but they tend to pre-date the 21st-century push to give parents choices beyond their neighborhood schools.

In the mid-1960s, Chicago proponents of voluntary school integration began creating schools without borders. The schools had racial quotas and specialty programs aimed at attracting and keeping white families in the city’s overwhelmingly African-American school district.

While the Board of Education led the creation of Disney Magnet School, community activists pushed the district to open Black Magnet in South Shore, in an effort to stem white flight.

Then in 1980, Chicago entered into a desegregation consent decree to integrate its public schools as much as possible, given its pervasive housing segregation. While a relative handful of schools across the city were designated as magnet schools, it was a subset of high-achieving magnets located mostly near downtown and along the north lakefront that acquired strong reputations and popularity among middle-class families.

As with all magnet schools, children living nearby sometimes don’t get into them. By the late 1990s, those families pressed for a better deal. That pressure, along with a desire to cut busing costs, lead to the creation, in 1998, of set-asides for families within living with 1.5 miles of magnet schools. The School Board also limited busing to families living between 1.5 miles and six miles away from the school.

In general, magnets beyond downtown and the lakefront were already likely to draw at least 30 percent of their students from the surrounding neighborhood. They were also likely to be lower-achieving and less diverse. Most did not meet the consent decree’s target for a white enrollment between 15 and 35 percent of students.

See “Magnet School Policy: Who Would Benefit?” Catalyst November 1997 and “Affluent Neighborhoods Get Magnet School Edge,” Catalyst February 1998


In his push to expand school choice, former CPS CEO Arne Duncan used more than $10 million in federal grants to create new magnet schools. Some replicated long-successful magnets like Disney and LaSalle, while others brought new specialties like Montessori into the district’s school mix. Through a magnet cluster program, Duncan tried to create similar cachet for neighborhood schools, but that effort had little success.

The national shift away from court-mandated desegregation arrived in Chicago in 2009, when a federal court judge vacated the consent decree, ending the practice of race-based lotteries in magnet school admissions. In 2010-11 CPS replaced race-based lotteries with a system that factored in students’ socio-economic status.

See “Specialties not a big draw,” Catalyst November 2008 and “Chicago schools new admissions policy: Will best magnets become less diverse?” Catalyst November 2009


Many have raised concerns that the end of race-based admissions to magnet elementary schools would make them whiter and more affluent. Even before the end of the consent decree, long-term trends in magnet enrollment showed an increase in white and affluent students. See “Losing diversity,” Catalyst November 2008.

However, the picture in highly-coveted magnets appears to be more complex than anticipated. Since the end of the consent decree, 13 of 15 magnets informally recognized as the “crown jewels” of the program for their strong academic performance have not seen increased white enrollment. (The school system has a total of 38 elementary magnets.)

Only two schools—Hawthorne and Wildwood—saw their enrollments become both whiter and more affluent. Six schools lost both white and higher-income students. At seven schools, white enrollment declined but more affluent students increased. A forthcoming report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research will examine the impact of using socioeconomic factors in admissions to magnet and selective enrollment schools. Meanwhile, more recently created magnets are less diverse than those intended from inception to foster integration. Among the 11 new elementary magnets created since 2004, only two have white enrollments that fall within the target zone called for under the old consent decree. Five schools have white enrollments of 1 percent or fewer; four have white enrollments above 35 percent. However, the new magnets mostly appear to be fulfilling their promise to offer high-quality school choices: all but two earned high marks under the CPS accountability system; only Clark’s and Smyth’s ratings fell below level 1. Smyth earned a 3, the lowest score in the system.

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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