One of the justifications given for phasing out the West Side’s Crane High School is that most students in the attendance boundary are “voting with their feet” to go elsewhere. Only 17 percent of the students living in the neighborhood this year attend Crane, notes Chief Portfolio Officer Oliver Sicat.

But Crane’s situation is far from unique. In just the last five years, the percentage of students attending their neighborhood high school fell by 10 percent, from nearly half in 2006-2007 to about 37 percent in 2010-2011, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data.  

Five years ago, no high school enrolled fewer than 20 percent of the students in its attendance area.  Last year, nine schools did, and Hirsch and Tilden enrolled just 13 percent of students in their neighborhood.

Dyett High School in Washington Park, also slated for phase-out and eventually closure, enrolls 19 percent of its area’s students.

The flight from neighborhood schools is not just happenstance: It is the result of the district’s orchestrated policy to give students more choices. Those choices include magnet and selective enrollment high schools, which have been a mainstay for years. But over the past decade, the number of options grew significantly, with charter, military and contract high schools opening up. They now serve 26,000 students, five times the population these new schools enrolled in 2000.

Most of the new high schools are on the South and West sides of the city and many of them are a bus ride away from Crane and Dyett.

This fact would be heralded by proponents of choice who say that high school students in these areas desperately needed better options.  Of the 40 new schools that have been around long enough to post scores on the ACT college entrance exam–students take the test in 11th grade–16 have higher scores than the district average of 17—which is considered too low for college readiness.

Only four of the schools have scores as low as Crane and Dyett, which average 14. The ACT is scored on a 0-to-36 scale.

Critics argue that the proliferation of charters and other new schools has left neighborhood high schools with the students who have the lowest academic skills and cannot win admission or have the facility to pursue other options. Getting these students up to grade level is a difficult, unique challenge, they say.

Others note that the trend has made comprehensive neighborhood high schools obsolete. That is a loss, they say, because such high schools have traditionally been anchors of communities and provide a variety of classes and after-school options to students.

Catalyst Chicago examined the challenge in the Fall 2011 issue of Catalyst In Depth,  which reported on the turnaround effort at Marshall High School, less than a mile-and-a-half from Crane. Like Crane and Dyett, Marshall and other failing schools in Chicago–and hundreds in big-city districts elsewhere–are losing students while struggling to improve while facing competition from charters. 


Click on the markers to find out specific information about the neighborhood high schools and new high schools.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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