Affluent neighborhoods get magnet school edge

Print More

This year, for the first time, eight magnet schools will hold a special lottery limited to children from their neighborhoods. Next year, the number of local lotteries is expected to rise to 23. Most of the schools are in affluent or gentrifying neighborhoods.

The new lotteries come in response to a controversial, new Reform Board policy requiring all 42 of the city’s magnet schools to reserve a given proportion of their enrollment for students living nearby—within a mile and a half of elementary magnets, within two miles of high school magnets.

For the 1998-99 school year, this neighborhood set-aside is 15 percent, a goal already met by 35 of the magnets. For 1999-00, it is 30 percent, a goal already met by 20 schools.

When added to the longstanding set-aside for siblings (45 percent) and the principal’s preference (5 percent), the new policy will leave only 20 percent of magnet-school seats open to students from the broader community.

White students, who make up 11 percent of the school system, will continue to be favored over students of color. Under the board’s desegregation plan, crafted in the early 1980s, enrollment at each magnet school is to be 15 percent to 35 percent white. Even so, 20 of the city’s magnet schools fell short of 15 percent.

When the neighborhood set-asides were proposed last fall, some parents and activists charged that the board was catering to residents of affluent and gentrifying areas; they noted the presence of many of the city’s best-known magnet schools in wealthy north-lakefront areas. Board officials heatedly denied the charge, stressing that many magnet schools sit near poverty areas, including public housing projects.

However, in January, School Reform Board President Gery Chico told the Chicago Sun-Times that he hoped the set-aside policy would, in fact, encourage young, upscale couples in gentrifying neighborhoods like Bucktown and the Near West Side to stay in the city when their children reach school age.

“Isn’t that what we said? Am I remembering something incorrectly here?” asks Sheila Castillo, director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils, which opposed the policy last fall. “The policy is not fair.”

Chico says there’s no contradiction with the board’s earlier position, and no unfairness intended. “The magnet school policy will appeal to all areas of the city, not just these gentrifying areas,” he subsequently told Catalyst. “Does this have application in certain areas differently? Yeah, perhaps. But the board’s motivation was to make the magnet program appeal to all people of Chicago.”

That includes Chicagoans who now send their kids to private school. According to a January article in Crain’s Chicago Business (“CPS targets upper crust in new promotional campaign”), the School Board is sending this year’s magnet school brochure to 11,000 parents whose children attend private preschools.

The 23 magnet schools that will be required to use the neighborhood lottery next year include all the magnet schools along the north lakefront and all but one of the magnet schools in the rapidly gentrifying areas surrounding the Loop, including Bucktown, the Near West Side and the Near North Side. These schools account for 13 of the 23. Many of these neighborhoods also include areas with high concentrations of poverty, all of which are undergoing gentrification and redevelopment. Of the 23, only Beasley is in an exclusively high-poverty area, Robert Taylor Homes.

In contrast, the 19 magnet schools that already take more than 30 percent of their students from their immediate neighborhoods include all six in the high-poverty communities of Little Village, West Englewood and East Garfield Park.

The schools that currently fail to meet the 30 percent set-aside also have stronger academic records. At more than two-thirds of them, more than half the students score at or above national norms in reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Fewer than half the schools that meet the neighborhood requirement post such scores.

The extended debate over the set-aside proposal delayed the distribution of updated magnet school materials, so parents and students are getting an extra month to apply. Applications are due Feb. 13. Information and applications were distributed in late December, say board officials. Copies also are available from board headquarters; call the Options for Knowledge Office at (773) 535-7790.