Dorian Sylvan wasn’t looking for anything extraordinary in a school. What parent wouldn’t want the qualities she ticks off—strong academics, art and music programs, diversity and involved parents?

But like many other Chicago parents, Sylvan decided her neighborhood school, Horace Mann, couldn’t provide the kind of resources she wanted. Instead, she chose to send her three sons to higher-performing Murray Language Academy in Hyde Park. Murray, a kindergarten through 6th-grade magnet school, fit the bill until her oldest son was ready for 7th grade. So the hunt for a school began anew.

Sylvan sifted through a number of options before settling on a friend’s recommendation, Franklin Fine Arts Center on the Near North Side. Sylvan loved the school, but to her dismay, found out busing wasn’t an option. The district provides busing only for children who live between one-and-a-half to six miles away from selective and magnet schools. Sylvan lives 15 miles from Franklin in South Chicago—coincidentally, a neighborhood deemed one of the 25 Chicago communities most in need of good elementary schools.

Sylvan chose Franklin despite the distance, even though it meant juggling her work schedule and making twice-a-day trips to drop off and pick up her sons.

“That was another level of frustration for me,” says Sylvan, who grew up in South Shore and remembers walking to a neighborhood school as a child. “It’s a shame that of the dozen schools I pass to get to Franklin, none of them meet the criteria I wanted. So I bit the bullet to get them to the school regardless.”

Stories like these aren’t hard to find in Chicago, where high-performing public schools are still few and far between. A Catalyst analysis of student commuting data found that some 10,000 high school students and 6,000 elementary students travel as far as six miles or more to school. More students  travel shorter distances to schools outside of their communities.

This dearth of good schools forces parents to play a game of choice, whether they want to or not. These parents tap into networks of friends and friends-of-friends, sifting through tips on which schools offer the best teachers, fine arts or other specialty programs, high test scores and some level of diversity that reflects the real world. The prize: a spot in schools like Murray and Franklin. 

Parents with some resources can—as Sylvan did—set their minds to doing what it takes to get their children across town to better schools. But those who don’t have flexible job schedules, or lack informed social networks, lose out. In some cases, students land in schools that may be no better than the ones they left. This is particularly true for African Americans, as Catalyst Data and Research Editor John Myers found.

CPS is trying to create better schools under its Renaissance 2010 initiative. But too many communities, like South Chicago and South Shore, are still without good options. Other communities that are not considered top priorities, like West Town, have reaped some of the benefit of Renaissance.

To their credit, school officials have taken steps to balance the equation. In communities where schools are needed most, for instance, the district is committed to locating facilities, typically a difficult task for school operators who otherwise might plant stakes in a middle-class community because a building is available.

Seeking community buy-in, CPS created advisory councils to vet new school proposals, a move that should help stem backlash reminiscent of what happened when Austin High School was shut down. The ripple effect of that closure bred widespread mistrust, and the small high schools now operating at the Austin campus have not been wildly popular. As education organizer Virgil Crawford says:  “I don’t think that we in the community should settle for piecemeal solutions. Smaller schools are not the answer in a community the size of Austin.”

Crawford’s West Side Health Authority has teamed up with local public officials to keep the pressure on CPS to build a new, comprehensive high school in Austin.

Still, new schools alone won’t provide the seats needed to serve children now in low-performing schools, something CPS has acknowledged. These schools need more resources to improve performance.

As Sylvan points out, the real issue is opportunity, not choice. At Franklin, her oldest son got the academic rigor he needed to win a spot at selective Whitney Young High School. Students who don’t get into the Franklins, Murrays, Skinner Classicals and other top elementary schools may not get that chance.

“It just perpetuates the cycle of poverty,” Sylvan says. “School is the one place where you can really impact a child’s life, but the kids that get educated in these [neighborhood] schools end up behind the 8-ball.”

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