Parents skeptical about magnet and selective admissions proposal

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CPS officials took their proposed magnet and selective school admissions policy on the road this week and encountered some suggestions, a host of questions and a fair amount of confusion and frustration.

 

CPS officials took their proposed magnet and selective school admissions policy on the road this week and encountered some suggestions, a host of questions and a fair amount of confusion and frustration.

Parents at public hearings held around the city said they are confused about the details of the policy but also angry in general about the limited number of seats available in good schools.

At King High School, a handful of people, including activist Wanda Hopkins from the grassroots Parents United for Responsible Education, walked away from the microphone after some variation of the pronouncement: “You will be in court.”

Black parents in particular seemed worried that their children would have a tougher time getting into the district’s elite schools, and that the proposed policy will award more seats to white students and those with high test scores—including students who have attended private elementary schools. The district’s top selective high schools have become less diverse in recent years, as have top-performing magnet elementary schools.

District officials consulted with policy expert Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation to come up with the proposed policy, which was announced Nov. 10. A federal judge vacated the desegregation consent decree, which governed magnet and selective school admissions, in late September.

Four of six scheduled public hearings took place over the past week. Between 80 to 120 people attended the hearings at Amundsen, a neighborhood high school with specialty programs on the North Side; King, a selective high school on the South Side; Jackson Language Academy, an elementary magnet on the Near West Side; and Little Village/North Lawndale, a neighborhood high school on the Southwest Side.

Rather than race, the new policy would take a student’s family and neighborhood socio-economic status into consideration for admissions. Census tract data will be used to divide students into four socioeconomic categories; each category will get about 10 percent to 12 percent of open seats. District officials are promising by next week an interactive map on the CPS website that families can use to figure out what category they fall into.

The rest of the seats will be allocated to specific groups of students. In magnet schools, siblings are guaranteed spots; after that, half of the remaining seats are reserved for local kids. In selective enrollment schools, half of the seats will be awarded to the highest-scoring students, regardless of race or socio-economic status.

Parents skeptical

A key concern expressed by parents was whether the district would take their concerns into account and make any revisions to the policy. Comments such as “Are you just giving us a forum to rant?” and “We hope this isn’t a way to just blow off steam,” were heard.

King High Principal Jeff Wright said selective enrollment principals were not even asked for ideas or feedback until recently. He, too, wondered whether district officials are open to changing the plan.

CPS official Kathryn Ellis admitted that the basic framework of the policy would likely be presented to the board without any changes. Some elements, such as how much preference to give to siblings and neighborhood children, could be changed.

Amy Boonstra, a parent of two who attended the meeting at Jackson, favors preference for siblings. “Logistically, for families to function positively it’s important,” she said.

But others pointed out that most of the high-performing magnet schools are in upper-middle-class neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park and the West Loop. These neighborhood students would essentially have three shots at admission: As a sibling, as someone who lives nearby and through one of the four categories.

Susan Rosenberg, a parent who attended the King hearing, recommended an approach tailored for individual schools: Well-to-do students would not get any seats (other than those for siblings and neighborhood children) at magnet schools in wealthy neighborhoods, while poor students would not get seats(other than those for siblings and neighborhood children) at magnets in low-income areas.

Ellis, however, said that the district did not want to develop different criteria for individual schools.

Parents at the Amundsen hearing—most of them white—seemed to acknowledge that the policy would give their sons and daughters a better shot at admission.

Harry Jozefowicz, a father of three, says he thinks that putting aside some spaces for students from higher-poverty neighborhoods is a thinly-veiled way to make sure some black and Latino students are admitted. “We can make amends [for past discrimination], but we can’t punish high-performing [white] students,” he said.

At King, where most of the audience was black, several parents noted that white and Asian students, as well as students who have attended expensive private schools, out-perform African-American students in general. Allocating more selective enrollment seats based solely on test scores would then favor white, Asian and private-school students.

Al Kindle, a member of the King local school council, noted that many black students attend poorly-resourced neighborhood schools that don’t offer a rigorous education.

“A lot of African American students miss the boat,” getting into selective enrollment high schools, he said.

A re-occurring theme was the difficulty of navigating the system and finding a decent school. Several parents confronted district officials with their stories of sons and daughters who got good grades and good test scores, but did not score high enough to win spots in the highly-competitive selective schools. Some underscored the importance of getting their children into a specialty school, pointing out their neighborhood high school is dangerous.

Natalie Bradford says her daughter is bright, but is not performing as well as she could because she’s at a school that is not providing a challenge. “I need her to be somewhere where she is pushed,” Bradford said. 

John Walker, a single father, said he lives down the block from King, but his daughter couldn’t get into that school or any other selective high school. She wound up at a charter school and is doing well, but Walker says the process of finding and applying for schools, only to be turned away, left him and his daughter distraught.

“I do not want any other child to have to go through what she had to go through,” he said.

District officials say they will review the effects of the policy next year and make revisions if it is not producing economic and racial diversity.

The remaining two community meetings to be held Friday and Saturday are at predominantly black schools, Westinghouse High School on the West Side and Simeon High School on the South Side.