The challenges of choice

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High school fair

Photo by John Booz

High school fair

 

With the end of 8th grade in view for James Baker, three of Chicago’s top public high schools turned him away—rejections that caught the straight-A student and his family off-guard.

His test scores fell just shy of cut-offs at Lane Tech and Walter Payton, two elite college prep high schools. He lost out in the lottery for Von Steuben, a popular magnet school on the North Side.

Baker, an African American, had a major advantage over thousands of other minority students, since he lives in Lincoln Park and was guaranteed a seat in that neighborhood’s top high school. But Baker and his mother, a well-informed parent who was active in the PTA at his elementary school, felt Lincoln Park’s basic classes wouldn’t be challenging enough. He tried out for the school’s premier music program, but didn’t make it.

“I got there and kind of froze up because I forgot my scales,” says Baker, who plays the piano.

With his choices narrowing, Baker and his mother took the advice of family friends involved with a West Side charter school, who suggested he apply to ACE (Architecture, Construction and Engineering) Tech, a charter 50 minutes south on the Red Line train. Baker was interested, but the application was due immediately, so he had to scramble.

“That night I was tired and my handwriting was kind of sloppy, so my mom had to type it,” Baker says. He wrote about Lego toys and drawing, and got in.


Why this matters

CPS and school choice advocates are banking on Renaissance 2010 to create better-performing schools and spur improvement across the district. But these challenges have emerged:

  • African-American students are more likely to choose lower-performing schools.
  • Parents need help navigating the complicated network of schools of choice.
  • Conflict is simmering in some neighborhoods over the question of community access to new schools.
  • Research on the benefits of choice is inconclusive.

Every winter, thousands of students like Baker reject their neighborhood high school and go in search of a better option. They send applications crisscrossing the city to what the district calls schools of choice: selective and magnet schools, as well as a growing number of new, niche schools like ACE Tech that have opened under Renaissance 2010. Overall, 50 percent of high school students and nearly a third of elementary students  opt out of their neighborhood schools. In African-American neighborhoods, the opt-out rates are higher, at 62 percent and 38 percent respectively.

But a Catalyst Chicago analysis shows the system of choice doesn’t serve all children equally.  A surprisingly high percentage of black students end up at another lackluster school rather than a better one. Even Baker, a higher-performing student, turned down a top neighborhood school for a much lower-scoring charter, although, by all accounts, he has flourished in the small, family-like environment at ACE Tech.

Catalyst’s analysis of 2007 data from the Consortium on Chicago School Research on student commuting found that:

  • About 23 percent—almost one in four—of all black high school students who attend schools more than 2.5 miles away (an approximate cut-off for neighborhood boundaries) are attending schools that score in the bottom 25 percent on the ACT college admissions test. A Consortium study now underway underscores the finding.
  • Among all students who travel to these low-performing high schools, more than 90 percent are African American. About 5 percent are Latino, and just 1 percent are white.
  • About 30 percent—one in three—of black elementary students who travel more than 1.5 miles are enrolled in schools that do not meet achievement targets set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Fewer than 1 percent of white elementary commuters and 9 percent of Latinos who travel attend these low-performing schools.

In some cases, students may, in effect, be forced to choose a low-performing school. One example is Christopher Collins, who was turned away from his neighborhood school, Hyde Park Academy, where he was looking forward to playing football.

Antonio Ross, Hyde Park’s disciplinarian, says he directed Collins to enroll at Robeson High in Englewood because Collins and his friends attacked another student during summer school. Ross says he often splits up “factions” of students through transfers, but never without reaching a consensus with the student, parent and receiving school. His mother says she never reached consensus with Ross.

She and her son tried unsuccessfully to get Ross to transfer Collins to Kenwood Academy. Eventually, Collins chose to go to lower-performing South Shore School of Leadership, because his brother had attended the school.

Catalyst’s findings are part of a complex picture that raises questions about the equity of Chicago’s dramatic expansion of school choice under Renaissance 2010, which has so far created 75 new schools and drawn the attention of national experts because of its ambition and scope.

Yet experts note the lack of conclusive research that would back up the central premise of Renaissance: that opening new schools will spur competition and force traditional schools to improve. A recent report by the RAND Corporation, often cited by charter advocates as evidence of the benefit to students, suggests mixed achievement gains. (See sidebar)

Other pieces of the choice puzzle: Some underserved communities are still waiting for new schools. The question of access—whether neighborhood students will have preference in admissions—has emerged. Moreover, diversity is down in magnet schools, the district’s most-established schools of choice.

One pressing need for families, however, is help to make sense of a complex system with selective schools that students must test into, magnets and magnet cluster schools that don’t require tests but do require applications and charters and contract schools with different application deadlines. The district may adopt a centralized student assignment system to streamline the application process, but experts note that families will still need good information for decision making. (See sidebar)

Confusion about the high school application process has clearly emerged as a problem for students, says Elaine Allensworth of the Consortium. Allensworth is chief researcher for a study now underway on high school transition, and this year is following 9th-graders who were interviewed as 8th-graders about their high school plans.

The study has also found that black students on the South Side tend to have more negative impressions about the safety and academic quality of their local schools. Some of these students started their summer break before 9th grade without clear plans for high school and often ended up at schools with academic track records similar to their neighborhood schools—a finding in line with Catalyst’s analysis.

Students typically pick such schools, Allensworth says, because they have small, special programs or because family members or friends are enrolled.

“You may know the reputation of your local school,” she suggests, “but you may not be aware of the reputation of a school outside your community.”

Across the city, families are clamoring to take advantage of choice, with charter applications on the rise and more students traveling long distances to enroll in new Renaissance schools. (See map)

But the lopsided distribution of new schools is evident, and has done little to make a dent in the citywide need.

More than a third—33—of the 75 Renaissance schools have opened in 18 communities that are not considered top priorities by the district, which chose those communities based on a 2004 Illinois Facilities Fund study that measured the need for better schools on a community-by-community basis.

Most of the 33 are in West Town, the Near West Side and several Southwest Side Latino communities that have overcrowded schools. The remaining 42 schools are spread among 15 priority communities. Ten communities have gotten no new schools.

The study calculated that, citywide, 88,500 seats were needed in high schools and 139,400 in elementary schools—creating what the report calls a “service gap” of 227,900 slots in high-performing schools.

But so far, new Renaissance schools have created only 15,300 additional seats: 7,000 in elementary schools and 8,300 in high schools, filling just 9 percent of the need. (For a story on Austin, the city’s largest community and the neighborhood with the biggest service gap, go to www.catalyst-chicago.org.) 

Jill Levine, director of school services for IFF, believes CPS has nevertheless done a good job opening new schools in high-needs areas. Before the group’s report was issued, she notes, charters were located just about anywhere, without much regard to need. (The IFF provides charters and other nonprofit groups with loans and technical assistance in obtaining facilities.)

Levine also notes that new schools alone won’t provide enough better options for kids. CPS needs to fix its traditional schools, too. “Charters are not the only people who can solve the problem,” she says.

Joshua Edelman, director of CPS’ Office of New Schools, says the district’s expansion of the “turnaround” program, in which operators take over underperforming schools, will help fill some of the gap. He says the biggest pinch for would-be school operators is finding school facilities, which poses no problem under the turnaround approach. In many cases, he contends, new schools have gone into non-prioritized areas because they found their own buildings.

To get community buy-in on new schools, CPS created advisory councils in four communities—South Shore, South Chicago and East and West Garfield Park—to vet proposals from school operators. CPS also sought to lure prospective operators to the communities by promising to find facilities for them.

In East and West Garfield Park, both among the top 10 communities in need of better elementary schools, the councils were headed up by long-time West Side activist Mildred Wiley of Bethel New Life. The councils approved three schools: a new campus of the all-boys Urban Prep Academy and an elementary school operated by the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, both in East Garfield Park; and in West Garfield Park, the Chicago Talent Development High School, backed by the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union Local 73.

In South Shore, the neighborhood at the top of IFF’s list of those that need better elementary schools, activists have long been skeptical of Renaissance. The council still faces challenges to winning solid buy-in out in the community.

Last month, the South Shore council decided to back the first Renaissance schools in the community: a new branch of the all-boys Urban Prep charter school in Englewood, which draws some students from South Shore, and a school modeled on high-performing South Loop Elementary. (The School Board has already approved the new elementary school and will vote on the high school in November.)

An August meeting of the advisory council, however, underscores the lingering skepticism about Renaissance. Phyllis Lockett, president and chief executive officer of the Renaissance Schools Fund, and two parent activists from Parents for School Choice field questions and give advice on spreading the word about the new schools.

Activists Adrienne Leonard and Kim Ambrose bring a measure of street credibility. Ambrose has a child who attended Renaissance schools and both have worked the supermarkets, coffee houses and community meetings trying to inform parents about the choices under Renaissance.

Suggesting council members study up on the proposals and “know the pulse of the community,” Ambrose warns of rough going.  “It’s not easy,” she says. “We’ve had people slam doors in our faces. Going around with Renaissance 2010 flyers, people treat you like you have the plague.”

Valencia Rias, an organizer with Designs for Change and a council member, asks a bevy of questions about parent engagement. Local school councils give parents legal authority in traditional schools, and Rias worries that the proliferation of charter and contract schools will slowly sap parents’ ability to have meaningful input at their children’s schools. Charter governing boards typically do not include parent members; contract schools are not required to have LSCs.

Lockett replies that new schools are finding innovative ways to increase parent leadership, from parent advisory councils to representation on school boards. But she draws the line at granting hiring power over principals, one of three powers granted to LSCs.

Later, Rias says she’s worried about how the new high school will affect the existing four small schools at the South Shore campus. But the community simply needs better options. She says the next issue will be housing for the new schools.

South Shore is getting a new high school building in 2009 and two new buildings for Bouchet and Powell elementary schools, paid for through the Modern Schools Across Chicago initiative.

At this point, district planners indicate that Urban Prep will take up space at the old South Shore campus and the new high school will house the four existing small schools.

The day before visiting South Shore, Lockett had pitched the new schools initiative to another advisory council, then provided training on how to vet school proposals. The meeting took place in the first floor offices of the local chamber of commerce in South Chicago. The tight-knit council had been organizing since April, even generating a 49-point wish list for school operators to consider.

The wish list covered a number of areas, including student mentoring, character building, services for special needs students and a strong literacy program. The council wanted to reach youngsters at an early age to stem the dropout tide and hoped to receive a suitable plan for an elementary or middle school, says member Neil Bosanko, president of the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce. (The community is among those needing better elementary schools, but is not on the district’s priority list for high schools.)

South Chicago also requested proposals from two established charter operators, Chicago International and Noble Street. But both bailed, for fear of overstretching their resources. Chicago International is slated to take over a troubled, but still unidentified, traditional school as a turnaround operator, and is also opening a new school in Altgeld Gardens. Noble Street plans to open three new campuses in the Loop and Near West Side (which are not priority communities).

With no other elementary school operators surfacing, the council tried to convince the operators of EPIC (Expeditionary Path to Innovative Change) Academy to expand its proposal to include elementary grades. The effort failed, but the council nevertheless decided to back EPIC’s high school proposal.

The EPIC Academy, run in partnership with Expeditionary Learning School/Outward Bound, plans to introduce long-term projects and college prep courses in a small high school of 500 students. Similar schools are run in Boston, New York and Baltimore.

Matthew King, associate director of education at ACE Tech charter, formed a team with three colleagues from Dunbar and Corliss high schools two years ago to put together the EPIC proposal. The year before, the team proposed a similar school for the Englewood community, but never made the cut.

King, slated to be EPIC’s principal, says he started making calls to community and business groups in the areas where advisory councils were formed to gauge the level of possible interest in EPIC.

“South Chicago returned calls,” he says. The decision was cemented early and King started attending community meetings of all stripes.

King and the EPIC design team have decided to push for an attendance boundary that awards priority seat placements to neighborhood kids. But they can’t promise it. Until the district officially approves plans for the school, King says the negotiations over a new boundary will be on hold. What’s more, EPIC and the community remain in the dark about where the new school will be housed.

“It’s almost a deal breaker for us,” says Zebedee Rivera, a local artist who took an active role on the council. “We would not be able to live with ourselves if we opened a school and our kids couldn’t go there.”


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myers@catalyst-chicago.org