Principal Jeff Wright in the hallway at King College Prep.

When acceptance letters went out last week to students who had applied to selective enrollment high schools, much of the buzz was about how hard it was for the students in the highest income tier, Tier 4, to win spots. Although CPS received the fewest applications from students in this tier, they mostly sought spots in the most selective schools in the city—Northside and Payton. As a result, students in Tier 4 would need a near-perfect score to get in. 

But a close look at cut-off scores reveals another picture for students who are not so affluent: Hundreds more students from lower-income areas applied for spots, creating more competition at some of the city’s nine selective schools and forcing these students to post higher scores this year in order to be offered a spot.

For example, students in Tier 2 who wanted to go to Walter Payton had to score 20 points higher than last year, as did students from Tier 2 and 3 looking for a spot at Whitney Young.

The issue, though, is muddled by the location of schools and where students are willing to travel. Schools on the North Side and near the city’s center, such as Payton, are much more sought after, especially by families living nearby. And the vast majority of the city’s high-income Tier 4 neighborhoods are on the North Side (although there are small pockets in gentrified areas of the South and West sides).

 At Brooks, King and Lindblom, all on the South Side, and at Westinghouse on the West Side, students from Tier 4 could score lower than those in Tier 3 and still get a spot. With the district attempting to maintain some measure of economic diversity and with fewer high-income families in these communities, the odds of being selected were higher. 

The complicated admissions process for the city’s elite high schools was put in place in 2010, after a federal judge lifted CPS’ long-standing desegregation consent decree.  Then-CEO Ron Huberman said that diversity was still important and a senior fellow from The Century Foundation, a think tank, came up with the tier system.

The basic idea is that the socio-economic status of the families in an area can be used as proxy for race. Under the current selection system, 30 percent of seats are awarded to students based on solely on an admissions score that combines state test scores, grades and scores on the selective enrollment exam. The next 70 percent of seats are divided among the four tiers.

Since it was implemented, the racial makeup at the selective enrollment high schools hasn’t changed much, perhaps more a testimony to the city’s racial segregation, and the fact that the district is now almost 90 percent black and Latino, than to anything else.

There is one notable difference: The percentage of black students has been going down. In 2012, 18 percent of the students at Whitney Young, Payton, Northside, Lane and Jones were black, down from 20 percent in 2010 and 22 percent in 2005.

And at Lindblom, King, Brooks and Westinghouse, the percentage of black students has also fallen 10 percent and is now at 80 percent. At these South and West Side schools, more Latino students are enrolling and now make up 16 percent of the population, compared to 7 percent in 2005.

Yet still, barely any white or Asian students—less than 2 percent of their enrollment—attend the selective schools on the South and West sides.

According to Census data published by CPS in 2010, the median income of families in Tier 4 is $96,000; in Tier 3, $62,000; in Tier 2, $45,000; and Tier 1, $30,000.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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