When schools get to choose their kids

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In Chicago, choice is a two-way street for the better prepared, the more motivated. Students with good test scores get to choose their high schools, and high schools with good programs get to choose their students. In the process, students who need the most help are left in the schools that, for a wide variety of reasons, are in the worst shape.

That’s what Catalyst Associate Editor Elizabeth Duffrin found when she examined high school enrollment patterns and related them to high school admission standards. On average, 55 percent of all CPS high school students go to schools outside of their neighborhoods. For a dozen schools on the South and West sides, the loss of students to other schools tops 60 percent.

The biggest loser is Harlan High School, which loses 77 percent of the students living within its Roseland attendance area. One resident mom remembers what people would say when she told them that she attended Harlan. “That’s the dummy high school,” recalls Linda Gore, who has resigned to send her sons to Hyde Park or Whitney Young high schools.

Such schools are caught in a downward spiral. High-scoring kids at feeder elementary schools leave the neighborhood for high schools with better reputations. Low-scoring and special education students stay behind because they have no place else to go. Test scores go nowhere, and the school winds up on probation. The stigma reinforces the bad reputation, and scares off better students and teachers—a cycle that makes it hard for the schools to offer programs that would attract better students and teachers.

Five of the 12 high schools that lose the most students have the moniker of math, science and technology academy, but they pale in comparison to their competitors.

There is no simple solution here, but there are two clear directions. One is putting some limits on schools’ freedom to choose kids. Reasonable admission standards could be set for selective schools and programs, and then a lottery could be used to admit students from the pool who qualify.

The other direction is to concentrate resources—time, money and talent—on rebuilding the schools that have been left behind. To succeed, that effort will need more than the laudable attempts to upgrade instruction. It will require engagement of students and the surrounding community as well.

DURRETT WAGNER 1929-2001 We are saddened to report that Durrett Wagner, our eagle-eye copy editor, died Nov. 21 following a 14-month battle with lung cancer. He was 72. From our first issue in February 1990 through our issue last month, Durrett scrutinized our every word and punctuation mark. He challenged words whose meaning didn’t seem quite right; he ensured titles and facts were consistent from one article to the next; he pounced on misplaced commas and quotation marks. In our early years, he also edited the Diaries kept by our anonymous informants, selecting passages from each that together told a story of reform trying to find its way.

Durrett was an exceptional man who brought enthusiasm, intense curiosity and a dry wit to his every endeavor. His tenacious inquiries to pin down the most minute details are legendary among family and friends. Steeped in both education and publishing, Durrett was more than CATALYST could have hoped for in that final set of eyes on our work. His education knowledge came in part from his wife of 50 years, Betty Jane “B.J.” Wagner, founder and director of the Chicago Area Writing Project, and in part from his years as a social science professor and academic dean at Kendall College in Evanston. For a time, he also was co-owner of Swallow Press. The Wagners’ younger daughter, Kendra, is following in B.J.’s footsteps as a reading specialist; their older daughter, Velma, is a psychologist and yoga teacher; and their son, Gordon, is a lawyer for a federal commission.

We will miss Durrett as a colleague and a friend.