Top schools grow less diverse

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Jones College Prep

photo by John Booz

Jones College Prep

Jones College Prep is aggressively trying to turn the tide on a quiet but alarming trend: the dwindling percentage of black students at the South Loop bastion and other elite city high schools.

African Americans account for half of CPS students, but only 29 percent of those in selective high schools, down from 37 percent in 1995. And the biggest drops are in the highest performing schools—Young, Jones, Lane, Payton and Northside—where the black student population has declined by 10 percent since 2000.

The result is that black students are being left out of the few public high schools in the city with highly competitive students and decidedly rigorous curricula, says Wanda Hopkins, who works for Parents United for Responsible Education. While other schools have selective programs, these eight schools are the only ones in which admission is based on an entrance exam given only to students with high standardized test scores.

Hopkins, who has a daughter in 3rd grade, says that when she has visited schools such as Northside Prep, she’s been awed by the top-notch programs—and appalled by the absence of black students.

“These are the schools that send students to Harvard and Yale,” says Hopkins, who is African American. “If our students are shut out, they won’t be able to compete.”

Principals of selective enrollment high schools are concerned for another reason: Losing diversity will hurt the overall quality of their schools. As much as their black students benefit from the quality education, their white, Latino and Asian students can only get a “world-class” experience in an environment in which they interact with people from different backgrounds.

“We guarantee it,” says Ellen Estrada, principal of Walter Payton, noting that her Near North Side school is a “unique and extraordinary” place.

While Estrada and other selective enrollment principals say the issue is on their radar screen, the only school actively tackling the problem is Jones.

Geography, not race

Jones transitioned in 1999 from a secretarial school into a college preparatory selective school. As a result, it has recorded the greatest decline in African-American enrollment among the eight selective high schools, from 41 percent black students in 2000 to about 24 percent in 2007.

In the first stage of the transition, black and Latino students took a chance on Jones while smaller numbers of white students applied. But as the school’s reputation improved, more white students applied and were admitted based on their grades, attendance and test scores.

Last year, because of the large number of white students that applied, the school had to resort to using Chicago’s desegregation consent decree to maintain racial balance and turn away white applicants. The decree allows schools to pass over white students and admit lower-scoring minority students as soon as whites make up 35 percent of the student body.

But the decree’s days may be numbered. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected voluntary integration plans in Seattle and Louisville. The decision does not immediately affect Chicago because the system is under a court order. However, CPS tried unsuccessfully last year to get the decree lifted and might try again in the future.

“We decided that we needed to get ahead of this,” Jones Principal Donald Fraynd says.

Recruitment and support based on geography rather than race seemed to be the best strategy, he says.

To that end, the school identified four poor, mostly black and Latino communities—Englewood, Grand Boulevard, Austin and South Chicago—that send few students to Jones. Last year, Jones hired Eugene Lockhart to convince children in those communities to prepare for and apply to the school.

Lockhart spent the last year combing through the test scores of all the 7th graders at the elementary schools in the four neighborhoods. He sent letters to those with scores in the competitive range, encouraging them to pursue the process. He also held informational meetings for students and parents, who he says often don’t know much about these schools or the process to get into them.

As a result, Jones enrolled eight students from the target areas in September. In October, Jones institutionalized the process as the Targeted Recruitment and Support Program.

Artifacts of racism

This undertaking was not without controversy. Though CPS paid for one year of Lockhart’s salary, district administrators have been standoffish about taking a more active role.

“This is something Jones is doing on their own,” says CPS spokesman Mike Vaughn.

He says the district has concentrated on putting more rigorous offerings in neighborhood schools, such as International Baccalaureate programs and Advanced Placement classes. He also says more black students are applying to selective high schools, though he didn’t comment on why enrollment is down.

Even some black parents and advocates question the value of integration in the face of other realities. Considering that so many Chicago students attend racially isolated schools, they say the system should do more to make neighborhood schools better rather than bolstering special schools.

Bonita Carr, national director of education for the Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition, says it is imperative that CPS do a better job both at making the neighborhood schools better and making sure that black students have access to selective high schools. Just look at Advanced Placement offerings in the schools, she says. Dunbar has six AP classes and Harlan has two, while Northside Prep has 20, Carr says.

“I have renamed the achievement gap the opportunity gap,” she says. “These neighborhood schools don’t have the resources and because of that, their schools don’t have the kind of high expectations and rigorous curriculum that is needed.”

Other selective school principals now support Jones’ effort and say they are watching it closely.

At Jones, some teachers expressed dismay that the school administration was worried about the issue. Sometimes subtly and other times overtly, they would make racist comments. “You would be surprised at the artifacts of racism,” Fraynd says. “Race is something you don’t talk about in Chicago.”

Fraynd says he moved the issue forward by getting a host of people, from local school council members to students to teachers, to agree that diversity and social justice were key values at Jones. He then got to talk about how they would ensure it.

Preparation or standards?

The supposition of the Jones Targeted Recruitment and Support Program is that there are students who could do well in a selective school, but for one reason or another don’t attend.

But Whitney Young’s Principal Joyce Kenner, who is African American, says the drop in black students brings up another hot button topic: the lack of qualified African-American students. Many reasons exist for the dearth of these students, but top among them are lack of quality elementary schools to prepare students for top-notch high schools and a lack of parental involvement, she says.

Elementary school counselors, however, say their students can’t win a seat because the standards are so high.

Charles Brown from Bethune Elementary in East Garfield Park says about 12 of his students have taken the test in the last three years, but none was offered a space. The better students from the school (where just 4 percent of students exceeded state standards in 8th grade last year) go to Steinmetz, which has an International Baccalaureate program, or Michele Clark, which is a magnet school.

“I think there need to be more slots for my students,” Brown says.

These are hard issues that need to be addressed, says Debra Miretzky, a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher who is chairing the targeted recruitment steering committee at Jones.

She wants to know if students who don’t meet the strict eligibility can compete at the school with some support and, if so, which supports are most important. This summer, the eight students admitted to Jones under its new initiative participated in a summer program and are receiving tutoring.

If they can “fit in” and succeed, Miretzky says, it begs the question of whether the admissions cut-off point should be altered to maintain diversity.

“I want to ask, ‘What is the criteria and how do we justify it?'” she says. “How do you balance whether kids qualify to come here against the fact that some kids don’t have the same opportunities?”

To contact Sarah Karp, call (312) 673-3882 or e-mail karp@catalyst-chicago.org.