Enrollment X factor undermines efforts to improve high schools

Print More
Editor Veronica Anderson

Editor Veronica Anderson

Letter From The Editor

Frankly, we were stunned when Associate Editor Sarah Karp first reported in the Catalyst Chicago newsroom that there were so many incoming 9th-graders registering late at Marshall High School that the freshman class nearly quadrupled within the first month.

Only 85 were pre-registered when Marshall opened its doors on the first day of school Sept. 4. A month later, on the critical 20th day, when budgets are locked for Chicago public schools, the freshman class had mushroomed to some 322 students.

Unfortunately, this is no isolated occurrence. Across the city at high schools in densely poor communities like Marshall that offer come-one, come-all admissions, a steady stream of teenagers enrolls every day—every week—amounting to thousands of latecomers through the fall and into winter.

The phenomenon makes it impossible for administrators to get a handle on how to assign faculty and spend financial resources. It also makes it tough for teachers, particularly those in core subjects, to get a firm start with instruction. Students who trickle into their classes come with a wide range of academic abilities, and those on the low end further tax teachers to help them cover lost ground.

By contrast, schools that admit students on the basis of entrance exams or lottery have stable enrollments right off the bat. At Lane Tech, for instance, where the student population exceeds 4,000, only seven students registered after the first day. That’s yet another edge for a high school that already admits only the cream of the crop. Further, unlike Marshall, Lane enrolls few students who have learning disabilities.

It goes without saying that student achievement is not what it could or should be in many of the city’s high schools. In fact, making failing high schools work is a top priority for the district. Some $80 million is earmarked for High School Transformation, a two-year-old project now in place at Marshall and 24 other schools. Focused largely on instruction, the goal is to raise performance for students and teachers alike. Yet, where enrollment creep is most pronounced, it threatens to undermine the fragile academic foundation of the city’s latest high school reform initiative.

Those who’ve long been involved with public education here and elsewhere know that high schools have proven to be far more difficult than elementary schools to improve. High school reforms, especially accountability mandates for graduation and dropout rates, are the next frontier of federal legislation and funding. Over the past 10 years, Chicago’s worst high schools have been the targets for a string of reforms, including student advisories, probation, reconstitution, re-engineering and converting large high schools into smaller ones. None produced significant progress.

In this special report, we explore the rollout of this effort in real time at Marshall, and measure its impact on the lives of three freshmen, each of whom brings a unique perspective and set of challenges to the table.

“Frida” is having a hard time understanding what’s going on in her classes, and it takes the school weeks to find out about her learning disabilities. “Derrick” has a smart mouth—offending teachers and security guards alike—and gets suspended four times in as many months, and winds up failing all of his classes. Tamoura dreams of going to Harvard and becoming a pediatrician, but she doesn’t think Marshall can get her there, and already is looking for a way out.

“The kids seem earnest, though there are some goof-offs, but they don’t seem that different from kids who go to higher-performing schools,” says Karp. “A lot of the teachers care about the kids. But things outside of their control get in the way of their making progress.”

Research and Data Editor John Myers analyzed reams of data on high school demographics and performance, special education, teacher turnover and school level budgets. His findings fill out this year’s annual school report card, as well as buttress in-depth reports on Marshall.

Together, they show the difficulties that the system itself has created for such schools of last resort but also uncover some encouraging breakthroughs.