In the beginning, there were Lane and Lindblom technical high schools, the former for high- achieving students north of Roosevelt Road and the latter for those south. For decades, these schools were the only ones in the public school system that required high test scores for admission. Then came Whitney Young Magnet School in 1975, and now six regional college preparatory schools, one of which is a converted Lindblom.
Within a few years, these magnet schools will enroll at least 12 percent of Chicago’s public high school population. Together they constitute the leading edge of the School Board’s bid to keep high-achieving 8th-grade graduates inside the school system and to keep middle-class families inside the city.
According to research by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, the system’s 8th-grade “brain drain” has been steadily declining since 1995, when the school system achieved stability under new rules set by the Legislature and new leadership appointed by the mayor. In 1995, the percentage of high scoring 8th-graders who left for private or parochial high schools was 27; by 1998, when several college prep high schools were underway, it had dropped to 19; the next year, it dropped to 17.
Yet to some who have long labored for better city schools, the board’s college prep initiative constitutes a drain on the larger school improvement effort.
“Creating elite schools is an error,” says Sokoni Karanja, president of Centers for New Horizons, a community service organization based in Bronzeville.
Chicago has created more exclusive public high schools than any other school district its size across the nation, according to a recent Chicago Sun-Times survey. Of the country’s five largest districts, only Chicago and New York City have high schools that accept students based on a test-score ranking, the survey found. The New York district, with twice as many students as Chicago, has only three such high schools.
“We should be working on good solid teaching and creating good solid schools, period,” says Karanja. “Not these little islands. All kids should be exposed to the same kinds of resources, not just a few.” (Disclosure: Karanja is a member of Catalyst’s editorial board)
The School Board stresses that it is adding challenging academic programs, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), to dozens of neighborhood high schools. “You can’t look at the college preps without looking at what’s happening to neighborhood schools with magnet programs,” says schools CEO Paul Vallas. “And the kids in the IB programs are one to two years above grade level. You can’t ignore this.”
For a couple of the neighborhood schools closest to the new college preps, magnet programs have yet to materialize. Harper High, a neighbor of Lindblom College Prep, has none and only recently added a full range of honors classes. Advancement Placement classes, which can lead to college credit, are still two years away, says Principal Nathaniel Mason.
Attracting students, Mason says, is one of his biggest tasks—Harper recently bused in 700 elementary students for a tour. “We have to sell ourselves,” he says.
Similarly, Corliss High School, a neighbor of Southside College Prep, has no magnet programs. But Associate Principal Kent Nolan says that is about to change. Corliss plans to open an Academy of Finance magnet program next year, he says. The program will teach more advanced math classes than the school now offers, while focusing on business practices and extensive internships, he says.
However, it is expected to serve just 50 of the school’s 1,100 students.
Even the neighborhood schools that have longstanding, successful magnet programs are feeling the heat of nearby college prep schools.
Kenwood Academy High School, about a mile from the soon-to-open King College Prep, has a magnet program that attracts nearly 200 top 7th- and 8th grade students from across the city. For years, though, the school has watched many of those students go elsewhere for high school. As the new college preps open, the challenge of retaining those top students is even greater, says Danille Taylor-Guthrie, a parent member of the Kenwood Local School Council.
“I think Kenwood faces a paradox,” she says. “There’s a demand that we’re a neighborhood school, serving everyone, yet we’re expected to perform at a magnet level.”
Taylor-Guthrie says that Kenwood and other neighborhood schools have not been given the resources to meet those demands.
Lincoln Park High School, a neighbor of Payton, boasts many of the attractions being built into the college prep schools. It is home to Illinois’ longest running IB program and has double honors and performing arts programs. The school is able to recruit teachers not only from high- performing suburban schools, but also from abroad, says Principal Janis Todd. This year, she says, the school added teachers from Spain and France.
What Lincoln Park doesn’t have is a first-class facility. Exposed pipes and peeling paint line many of the hallways in the 101-year-old building. The school’s antiquated plumbing and electrical systems also are in need of an overhaul, says Todd. Without improvements to Lincoln Park’s brick-and-marble structure, she fears many students will opt for the shiny steel and glass of nearby Payton. “We know that everyone likes something new,” she says.
The six college prep high schools have received an exceptionally large piece of the School Board’s capital funding pie. According to a Catalyst analysis of the board’s capital spending between 1996 and 1999, those schools got almost half of the construction and renovation money spent on high schools. (The board did not respond to Catalyst requests for updated figures.)
Schools chief Vallas makes no apologies for the money spent to construct top-quality facilities. “I want schools that will last for another 50 years,” he says.
But he also understands pressure to upgrade high school facilities systemwide. “We are investing a lot in high schools,” says Vallas. In the next six months alone, he says, the School Board will allocate $25 million for repairs to neighborhood high schools.
Additionally, Vallas stresses, the School Board is providing extra educational resources. Neighborhood high schools will get $150,000 grants for new magnet programs and continued financial support in the early years of those programs. His goal, he says, is to have, within six years, “two or more magnet programs in every high school—and that’s not including AP programs.”
However, Karanja doesn’t believe that adding magnet programs will create strong neighborhood schools. “What that ultimately means is you’re catering to the talented tenth—the top 10 percent of the students in that school.”
What he advocates is creating a network of high schools for each community, with each high school adopting a particular schoolwide focus, undergirded with college preparation. “That way, you don’t have any one school trying to do it all,” says Karanja, a community member on the local school council at Phillips High, another neighbor of King.
One organization that has worked to improve high schools throughout the South has taken a like-minded approach. “We’ve looked at a design where every high school has its own focus, whether that’s college preparatory or vocational,” says Gene Bottoms, who heads the High Schools that Work program of the Southern Regional Education Board, based in Atlanta, Ga.
Several high schools in Atlanta, says Bottoms, have created two magnet programs within each school, a business study program and a complete college preparatory program, both built around a core college prep curriculum. All students must select one of the programs.
Bottoms says that the creation of elite schools can have a domino effect on regular schools that lose their top students. Watching good students leave can sink the morale of a faculty, he says. The teachers themselves may then leave for greener pastures or simply underperform, and “that’s a formula for disaster.”
“The key is to figure out how to improve high school for the other 60 to 70 percent of today’s students,” says Bottoms.
Steve Zemelman, director of the Center for City Schools at National-Louis University, champions yet another approach to more widespread school improvement, small schools. National-Louis helped create Chicago’s first free-standing small high school, Best Practice, which is located in the Cregier Multiplex on the West Side. The 425-student school does not screen students by test scores and does not funnel them into separate achievement tracks once they enroll.
Zemelman says two-thirds of last year’s graduating class, the school’s first, went on to college. “That shows that you could develop a school that gives opportunities to students at all achievement levels, without segregating stronger students,” he says.
Fred Hess, director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University, says it’s too early to gauge the benefits of Chicago’s expanded magnet program for high schools. “The efforts in Chicago are only in their second year; we have no idea whether they’re going to be successful,” says Hess, who has a CPS contract to study its high schools. It may take up to four years to determine the success of those programs, he adds.
Time is exactly what the School Board wants. “Opening up the regional magnet schools,” says Vallas, “is designed to buy us time to transform the neighborhood high schools.”