In Chicago, high school choice is not a new phenomenon. For decades, more than half of its public high school students have fled their zoned neighborhood high schools in search of something better. But the rapid expansion of charters and school choice over the last eight years means some neighborhood schools have lost so many students that their survival is in jeopardy.
Bitter battles over charter expansion highlight a fundamental question: Can neighborhood high schools be reshaped to serve students better, or will they be replaced by schools that restrict enrollment in some way?
In an effort to hold on to middle-class families and lure students away from private schools, Mayor Richard M. Daley created six selective-enrollment high schools and a military academy in the late 1990’s.
However, their locations meant that African-American students, who then made up about half of CPS enrollment, still had long commutes to top-performing schools, according to a 2000 study by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. (For a student’s view, see this story about Ashleigh Johnson, who traveled 13 miles each way from her home in Greater Grand Crossing to join the initial freshman class at Walter Payton College Prep.)
In 2001, more than half of Chicago’s public high school students attended schools outside their neighborhoods, the result of two decades of creating both selective high schools and specialty programs inside neighborhood high schools that attracted students from other areas.
Low-performing neighborhood schools also lead families to seek other options. In three West Side and nine South Side high school attendance areas, between two-thirds and three-quarters of students chose to leave the neighborhood for high school.
The rise of charter schools has further expanded choice and provided new school options without test score requirements. Hirsch High, the neighborhood school serving Greater Grand Crossing, was never on Ashleigh Johnson’s radar.
By 2013, it was off the table for more than 90 percent of her neighbors, too, as WBEZ reported. Of the neighborhood’s 682 CPS freshmen, only 45 had chosen Hirsch. The rest were dispersed among 84 high schools, with a quarter leaving for charters within five miles of Hirsch.
Increased choice created a complex high school admissions process, with an overwhelming mix of application procedures, deadlines and academic requirements. For all their effort, a quarter of the African-American students who traveled beyond their neighborhood school chose schools where students scored in the lowest 25 percent on the ACT college admissions exam, Catalyst found.
As school choice continues to expand, some neighborhood high schools are nearing extinction. WBEZ recently reported that Hirsch enrolled just 23 entering freshmen this fall, and a dozen Chicago high schools have freshmen enrollments of 50 students or fewer.
According to former CPS demographer James Dispensa, a minimum of 600 students are required to sustain a neighborhood high school, and 1,200 is better for supporting a variety of courses and extracurricular activities.
A recently updated Chicago Public Schools fact sheet tallies 176 high schools, up from 88 a decade ago. Meanwhile, high school enrollment has hovered around 100,000 students.
But getting rid of under-enrolled neighborhood high schools would likely hurt Chicago’s most vulnerable students. A recently published study by Northwestern University’s Mary Pattillo confirms what many have long suspected: families with children in charter high schools have advantages other families lack.
While all 77 families in her study were poor and African American, the families connected with a charter high school had higher incomes and were more likely to be employed than families who chose neighborhood high schools. They were also more likely to own a car, making it easier to travel to a school beyond the neighborhood.
New York City’s switch to a full-choice system highlights the problems Chicago would likely encounter if the neighborhood high school were to vanish. In 2003, New York eliminated zoned neighborhood high schools and developed a unified admissions process that matches students with schools through a system modeled on matching medical students to residency programs.
A 2009 report from the Center for New York City Affairs found key flaws in the system: families that spoke languages other than English struggled to understand the process, special-needs students were assigned to schools that could not provide necessary services, and 14,000 students landed in schools they did not choose.
In 2008, CPS began researching a New York City-style admissions system but has yet to create one.
In a district that has taken a severe PR beating in recent months, closing neighborhood high schools likely amounts to political Kryptonite. Previously, CPS proposed closing Crane and Dyett high schools, but in both cases public outcry forced the district to change course. Crane reopened in 2013 as a magnet high school focused on medical careers, and Dyett is expected to relaunch next fall as a neighborhood, arts-focused high school.
At the same time, the Board of Education’s vote this week to approve a new Noble Network campus in Brighton Park signals it remains philosophically committed to increasing high school choice. Illinois recently won a $42 million federal grant to expand charter schools; the state’s proposal would put half of them in Chicago. Co-location of new charters in underutilized high schools seems likely to increase; in 2013, charters opened within Bowen, Corliss and Hope high schools.
Local efforts have now sprung up to rebuild neighborhood schools as viable options. In February, three North Side aldermen banded together to direct tax-increment financing and other funds to their neighborhood high schools.
This week, Generation All, an initiative spearheaded by The Chicago Community Trust, announced grants of more than $500,000 to bolster neighborhood high schools through community-school partnerships, school leader training and some projects already underway in some schools.
See “Neighborhood high schools struggle to attract students,” Catalyst October 2013 and “Losing students, neighborhood high schools caught in downward spiral,” Catalyst December 2014