Can middle-class kids be lured back?

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Real estate brokers can be a tough crowd. Cynthia Draper-Hill, a former officer of the Chicago Realtors Association, says she’s seen them walk out on after-dinner speakers. In droves.

But most of them stayed, riveted, to hear Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of Chicago’s public schools, give the keynote address at the realty group’s annual dinner in late September. Draper-Hill was not surprised. “Schools are definitely important to selling real estate in the City of Chicago,” she explains. “People are looking at the prices of houses and thinking, ‘If I didn’t have to pay for Suzy’s private education, I could buy a more expensive house.'”

Flight from the city school system is almost a given for those who can afford suburban homes or private education. “Some people think of it like Death and Taxes,” says the father of a 2-year-old son; the father already is agonizing over what to do. “It’s an assumption.”

Twenty-three percent of all Chicago kids go to private or parochial schools, compared to 13 percent nationwide. Many middle-class families bolt the city before their children are old enough for school. The issue is especially acute at the high school level. Nearly 10 percent of all 8th-graders in Chicago’s public schools leave for suburban or non-public city high schools.

Now, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s school reform team is working to stanch the flow. Reaction from the target group indicates, however, that success is on a very distant horizon.

Realtors wowed

In his speech to the real estate brokers, Vallas pointedly noted several initiatives that could draw more middle-class, home-buying parents into CPS: Neighborhood set-asides for magnet schools, many of which are in affluent and gentrifying neighborhoods; accelerated academic programs for high-achievers at dozens of high schools; and new magnet-style high schools in each of the school district’s six regions. “Never again will parents have to seek parochial, private or suburban options when it comes to making a decision on where their children will go to high school,” he promised.

The realtors were wowed. Several who later spoke with CATALYST were almost breathless in their enthusiasm for the man, his programs and his presentation of them. “I was moved,” says David Hall, a broker from the Lake View area and a former City Colleges instructor. Hall especially appreciated Vallas’ determination to succeed. “I just found that enormously stimulating and exciting,” he says.

But it wasn’t the middle-class lures that hooked Hall and his colleagues. Rather, it was the reform team’s plans to bolster the system as a whole, especially the schools most in need of help. In talking about the Vallas speech, realtors most often mentioned what Vallas calls a “wall-to-wall” education policy, featuring, among other things, standards for teachers and students, capital improvements across the city, and new preschool programs.

Vallas is adamant on the point. “This is not a middle-class program,” he says later in an interview. “This is an everyman’s program. This is a program for every student in the system. It’s comprehensive. People say what we do is driven by developers. This is a comprehensive program.”

Vallas’ boss, School Board President Gery Chico, takes a different rhetorical tack. “We’re not afraid to say it,” he declares. “The system has to be attractive to all our parents, or we will all suffer.”

To that end, he says, the board has given extra support to programs for higher-achieving kids, which are most likely to attract middle-class families. Chico acknowledges, for example, that the Reform Board has put some of its top academic schools on the fast track for school repairs. But he notes that low-achieving schools have received the overwhelming majority of attention and extra spending from the board.

Some advocates for the poor agree that the school system should not ignore the middle class. “The majority of low-income people live in moderate- and middle-income neighborhoods. So, sustaining moderate- and middle-income neighborhoods is also important,” says Malcolm Bush, president of The Woodstock Institute, which promotes investment and development in poor communities in Chicago.

“We think that mixed-income communities are viable places for poor people to live in,” he says, citing research showing that mixed-income neighborhoods have lower crime rates and more available jobs than do low-income neighborhoods. Middle-income residents give the city government and schools a better tax base, he adds. Bush says gentrification and the disappearance of housing that poor people can afford must be addressed. But he adds: “We cannot imagine a viable city without a strong middle-class base.”

Even the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless sees little to worry about in policies that create more attractive schools. “When it comes down to education, I think people’s interest in quality education cuts across class lines,” says Matt McDermott, a policy analyst for the Coalition.

However, if the board is serious about attracting middle-class families, it may have to give them special treatment, says Northwestern University Prof. Fred Hess. “You do have to have enough middle-class kids in a school to make the average middle-class parent comfortable having their kids in that school,” he says. That could mean intentionally structuring programs to attract a preponderance of middle-class kids.

Tipping points

Researchers talk about “tipping points” for schools, that is, the proportion of either minority or low-income students that typically results in an exodus of white or middle-class students. On the issue of class, research shows that the greater the concentration of low-income kids at a given school, the lower student achievement tends to be for all kids at that school, says Hess; as the concentration moves past 40 percent, the achievement drop becomes increasingly dramatic.

“The school system is walking a tightrope,” says Hess, in trying to balance equity concerns and its desire to stop the middle-class exodus. He notes that its first bow to the white middle class came in the early 1980s when it adopted an enrollment policy for magnet schools. The board set aside a disproportionate share of seats for white students—15 to 35 percent—on the theory that whites wouldn’t come to integrated schools if they were limited to their proportionate share, about 17 percent at the time.

What could tip the balance in the board’s favor on this issue, says Hess, would be improving achievement systemwide, which is Vallas’ goal. For instance, if more students finished elementary school scoring at or above national norms on tests, there would be more high-achieving kids to go around to new, accelerated high school programs. “Whether the elementary schools can improve what they’re doing enough for that to happen is yet to be determined,” he says.

Judging from the realtors Vallas talked to, educational enhancements aimed at higher-achieving students won’t attract middle-income families anytime soon.

One said that as impressed as he was by Vallas, he wasn’t about to return his family to the city to test the waters. After his son was born, John (who asked that his last name not be used) moved from Roscoe Village on the North Side to a North Shore suburb. “I think Vallas is doing a great job, but I don’t think his work is going to be realized short term,” says John. “He’s a long-term guy. I was raised on the North Shore, and I know those schools are superior. He could be Superman, and it wouldn’t be enough. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, Paul Vallas is Superman.” But for now, for John, it’s not enough.

Bobbie Mallin, another real estate agent who heard Vallas speak, recently pulled her son out of a non-public school to enroll him in a city public school, Ogden. “He’s delighted to be there,” says Mallin, a manager at Habitat Company. “I just wish I’d done it sooner.” However, Ogden, a racially integrated, largely middle-class school just off the Gold Coast, has had high test scores and good programs for a long time.

Vallas is looking for people like Mallin to tell their stories. In his address to the brokers, he said, “A message I do want to communicate to the industry is, we need to work together to advertise the top schools in the system. It’s something that is not done enough. Because we have some of the best schools in the state in Chicago. Sometimes people don’t realize that the school right down the street is a quality school.”

On the Far Southwest Side of the city, the Beverly Area Planning Association has been in the school advertising business for years.

Adeline Ray, a BAPA staffer who works with the group’s education committee, says it’s a reciprocal arrangement. “The parents and the community demand quality education, and the schools provide that. After that, it’s kind of a word-of-mouth thing. … And people see that public education is a viable option.”

“We have plenty of kids to fill our schools,” she adds. “They’re bursting at the seams.” Two schools in the area are receiving annexes, having been overcrowded for years.

People move to Beverly for their public schools, reports BAPA housing coordinator Marcie Walsh. The group surveys homebuyers every year, and a quarter of this year’s respondents said that schools were a factor in their decision to buy in the neighborhood.

BAPA’s newest flyer gets right to the point. “Have you ever said, ‘I’d live in Chicago if it wasn’t for the public schools?'” it asks on the cover. “Take this two-minute quiz. What you learn may change your mind.”

The quiz asks which schools posted the highest scores on various state tests. The choices include schools in such highly regarded suburbs as Lake Forest, Oak Park and Arlington Heights. But the correct answer to each question is a Beverly school.

BAPA mailed the flyer to 15,000 neighborhood residents and asked them to give the flyers to friends who live outside the city.

There is more economic and racial integration in Beverly than in most suburban communities. Both the neighborhood and its public schools are predominantly middle-income. Enroll-ment in Beverly area elementary schools is predominantly African American, ranging from 39 percent at Sutherland to 100 percent at Esmond.

Judging from the number of Beverly 8th-graders who leave the system, BAPA has not been as successful selling its nearest public high school, Morgan Park, whose enrollment is 55 percent low income and 74 percent black. Two of its feeder elementary schools in Beverly, Sutherland and Clissold, are among the top five citywide for sending their students to non-public or suburban high schools. (See chart on page 10.) BAPA staffer Walsh, who has sent three children to Sutherland, says that her oldest son attends nearby Brother Rice.

Morgan Park is one of 13 schools that central office picked recently to launch the prestigious International Baccalaureate program. (See story on page 10.) A BAPA flyer on all area schools, both public and private, highlights IB in its entry on Morgan. “I’m hopeful,” says Walsh, adding that she will “definitely consider” the program next year, when her middle daughter begins to look at high schools.

Another neighborhood family experimented with a public high school but quickly ran back to Catholic schooling. Armeanusa Pettis says her oldest son had attended Catholic elementary schools but did fine at Corliss High; her daughter Kareemuha wanted to try Corliss as well. “She thought it was going to be fun, instead of going to school with all girls,” says Armeanusa.

But security concerns and a slowed-down curriculum quickly turned off both mother and daughter. Kareemuha now attends Longwood Academy.

For some middle-class parents, a high-quality academic program isn’t enough.

In the early 1990s, parents from Bell Gifted Magnet, Oscar Mayer Elementary and seven other North Side elementary schools petitioned then-Supt. Ted Kimbrough to create a new high school for their kids. Scott Berman, a leader in the effort, says they were on the verge of winning a commitment when the beleaguered Kimbrough bowed out. With many of their children about to start high school, the group decided not to start over with Kimbrough’s successor, Argie Johnson. Of the 280 kids who graduated from those schools in 1993, Berman estimates, 170 left the system. Berman and his family moved to Skokie; his children have attended Niles North High School.

Safety and convenient transportation were prime concerns for the parent group. “The board [initially] was talking about, why not take a formerly bad school and put [a new] program in it?” he says, “but parents are not going to want their kids to be the guinea pigs. And if it’s dangerous at all, day or night, if they can’t travel in the early evening, don’t bother starting the school.”

The parents also wanted a full complement of extracurricular activities. “My daughter was editor of the [Niles North] high school newspaper, and they produced at least 15 issues a year,” says Berman. “Lincoln Park doesn’t have one, and there are no plans to start one.”

However, Vallas sees the tide changing. “There’s nothing like enrollment to tell you that people are responding,” he told the realtors, citing figures that show enrollment up by almost 14,000 students in the last two years.

Most of the growth is in preschool (where the board has opened 3,000 seats), kindergarten (where the number of full-day classes is up) and the primary grades. Enrollment in the city’s Catholic schools is down, but not in those grades, according to the Archdiocese Office of Catholic Education. None of this suggests a middle-class surge. Asked later whether the board has pinpointed where the new students came from, Vallas said it had not.

The schools chief stresses that he’s not in competition with the Catholic school system anyway. Rather, he sees the two systems as supporting each other. “When you don’t have good public schools, people move out of the neighborhood, and the parishes become undermined,” he says, “and then the parishes can’t support the parochial schools.”