Getting a chance

February 4, 2013

When they arrived at Whitney Young three years ago, Anthony Wiggins (left) and Jakori Lesure came from low-performing elementary schools and felt as though most of their classmates were a year ahead of them in terms of knowledge and skill.  [Photo by Joe Gallo]
Photo by Joe Gallo
When they arrived at Whitney Young three years ago, Anthony Wiggins (left) and Jakori Lesure came from low-performing elementary schools and felt as though most of their classmates were a year ahead of them in terms of knowledge and skill. [Photo by Joe Gallo]

In 2008, a federal judge freed CPS from the dictates of a long-standing desegregation decree that had kept at least some racial balance in the district’s elite selective schools.

To try and maintain that balance in four selective high schools—Walter Payton, Jones, Northside College Prep and Whitney Young, bar-none the best high schools in the city—CPS officials started a program that offers seats to promising black students from the district’s worst elementary schools, who otherwise would not have qualified for admission.

The district has quietly kept the initiative going and expanded it to Lane and Lindblom. At the same time, the diversity at the top selective high schools has shifted. Since 2005, the number of Latino students in CPS has increased by 7 percent, but the number at these selective schools has only risen by 2 percent.

And in 2005, black students made up about 24 percent of students in the North Side selective high schools. Now, black students comprise about 17 percent, a figure that would fall to 15 percent without the diversity initiative.

The first cohort of students in this special program are now juniors and though some of them floundered academically, many have adjusted to the demands of a top high school.

Anthony Wiggins, a tall young man now given to wearing argyle sweaters and other preppy clothing, says he feels he is better off for attending Whitney Young instead of his neighborhood school on the far Southeast Side. But nearly every semester at Whitney Young has been difficult for him, and Anthony longed to be better-prepared.

“I was totally freaked out,” he recalls, talking about the geometry class he took during a summer freshman orientation. “I had never seen this before in my life.”

When classes began, everyone else seemed to be at least a year ahead of him.

For students like Anthony, the disparity in preparation starts even before elementary school, when parents take their 4-year-olds to be tested for gifted and classical elementary schools. These schools, as well as some North Side magnet schools, serve as major feeders into the North Side selective high schools, a report by WBEZ revealed last year. More than half of CPS elementary schools do not send any graduating 8th-graders to these selective schools.

In fact, a Catalyst Chicago analysis found that children living in high-income census tracts were four times more likely to take the test for gifted and classical schools than children in low-income areas—even though research has found that intellectually gifted children are no more likely to be rich than poor. By the time students go to high school, more lower-income students apply for selective schools—and there are more seats available—but the disparity continues: 31 of 77 community areas with low application and acceptance rates for selective enrollment elementary schools continued to have low rates for high schools. (See charts.)

While diversity is a goal, some of the selective enrollments were opened with the intent of trying to keep the middle class in Chicago, says Timothy Devine, principal of Walter Payton College Prep.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley and his then-schools CEO Paul Vallas “were trying to combat the brain drain that occurred at 7th or 8th grade,” Devine says. “We are meeting the needs of highly discerning students and parents.”

Devine points out that these schools also attract teachers from better schools of education, teachers who otherwise might not consider teaching in CPS.

But Donna Ford, education professor at Vanderbilt-Peabody College, says that under-representation is a pervasive problem, not just for poor black and Latino children but also for children from middle-class families. Tests used for admissions can be biased, and some black and Latino parents and students shy away from gifted schools that are not diverse.

“The question is: ‘Who are the gatekeepers for parents to know about these programs?’” she says. “Black and Hispanic parents are rarely told about them. There is a lack of access to information.”

Katie Ellis, CPS’ executive director of access and enrollment, says that her staff has in recent years stepped up efforts to reach out to parents. Before, the staff would wait to be invited to schools and other venues; now they invite themselves, making sure to hit a variety of places.

This year, for the first time, Ellis’ office has “trained the trainers,” reaching out to social workers, day care workers and others in the community who interact with parents, giving these workers information to pass along to parents.

The consequences can be devastating for advanced students who, for whatever reason, fail to get into a gifted program, Ford says. She equates it to children with learning disabilities who do not get the right support.

A 2010 report called “The Achievement Trap” found that high-achieving, low-income 1st-graders were significantly more likely to lose that status by 5th grade than their wealthier peers who had more educational opportunities.

Later, they were twice as likely to drop out.

“They become bored, disengaged, unmotivated,” Ford says. “They also might act out because they don’t have work to fill the time.”

Jakori Lesure was on the verge of becoming one of those children.

Jakori says he never took a test to get into elementary school. He does not think his mother even knew about gifted or classical programs. She sent him to Catalyst-Howland Charter School, not because it was necessarily better than his neighborhood school, but because it was closer. Jakori was part of the first class to graduate from Catalyst-Howland in Austin, a Level 3 school, the lowest rating CPS gives.

Jakori says Catalyst-Howland emphasized discipline. He got detentions nearly every day, mostly for not wearing his uniform or not tucking in his shirt or not having a belt on. “I feel like uniforms are a way to exercise control,” he says.

Catalyst-Howland tried to have an accelerated track, Jakori says. But by the time he was in 6th grade, it was discontinued. “Only six students were in it, and they decided it wasn’t worth wasting a teacher,” says Jakori, who is now 16.

In 8th grade, he took the test to get into a selective high school. He remembers thinking that the math was beyond hard. “It was stuff I had never seen before,” he says.

The news of his results was not good. Jakori wasn’t accepted at any of the selective schools. He and his mom started looking for alternatives. Later that spring, he got the surprise letter offering him a spot at Whitney Young under the special diversity program.

Austin, where Jakori lives, has no gifted or classical elementary schools with the type of curriculum needed to prepare students for top high schools. Seven of the 16 schools are on the South or Southwest side and the rest are on the North Side.

But even when schools are relatively close, some parents are reluctant to have their children tested.

Mercedes Hunter, a social worker at Bunnyland Day Care Development Center in Roseland, says she and other staff will sometimes suggest to parents that they apply for magnet schools or take their children for testing. But often, parents don’t pursue it.

Parents are usually looking forward to having their children go to the school nearby, where brothers and sisters might already be, Hunter says. They also don’t like the idea of their young children traveling outside the neighborhood, even though busing is provided.

“Transportation is the big issue,” Hunter says. “It is up to the parent to follow up and many don’t.”

Uriel Montoya, education organizer for Enlace Chicago, a community group in Little Village, says many parents on the Southwest Side have no idea that such accelerated programs exist. “CPS needs to do a better job [of promotion],” he says.

By the time students are ready for high school, many have already lost any chance to go to a top selective school. To qualify for the test, students must have 7th-grade scores that are above the 50th percentile on the ISAT in both reading and math.

Though some 14,000 students apply for about 2,000 seats in the North Side selective high schools, admissions officers spend much of October and November going to a range of elementary schools to sell their programs.

Location is also a barrier even for older students. At Northside College Prep in North Park, the top-scoring high school in CPS, only about 9 percent of the students are black and just 20 percent are Latino.

Northside Principal Barry Rodgers says his admissions director actively recruits from underrepresented neighborhoods. “It is primarily a function of the demographic distribution of groups throughout the city,” he says. (Von Steuben, a nearby magnet high school, is 16 percent black and half Latino.)

At Shoop Academy in Morgan Park, Principal Lisa Moreno has several perspectives: She was an assistant principal at Northside, one of her daughters attends Walter Payton and now she is trying to get her bright students to open up to the idea of going to a selective high school that may be across town.

Moreno says most of her parents won’t even go to open house events at the schools or to high school fairs, because they aren’t accustomed to traveling so far. “They don’t realize how much they are limiting their children,” she says.

But some of their concerns are practical. Parents don’t want students traveling in the dark—early morning or early evening—and they wonder how their child will participate in afterschool activities.

Moreno knows those concerns well: Every school night, she picks her daughter up from the Metra station.

The initiative that landed Jakori and Anthony at Whitney Young was created, in part, to help CPS officials save face and keep selective and magnet schools from becoming too white once the desegregation decree was lifted.

Then-CEO Ron Huberman hired Richard Kahlenberg from The Century Foundation to devise a new admissions process that was based partly on grades and test scores and partly on socio-economic conditions.

The bet was that socio-economic factors could be used as a proxy for race—but that bet didn’t quite work out. After the first group of students was admitted under the new system, it was apparent to Huberman that the racial balance was going to be thrown off in the elite North Side selective schools.

So Huberman and his team came up with the idea of using provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act to allow students from schools that didn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress—the federal performance benchmark—to transfer to schools that did. At the time, only four high schools met this benchmark, and they happened to be Whitney Young, Jones, Northside and Payton. One hundred seats would be offered.

Of the 100 students offered seats the first year, 25 turned them down. In that first year, students struggled. In the next cycle, Ellis says, the cut-off score was raised and fewer students made the cut-off. But for the current school year, more than 100 seats were offered and about 85 students accepted.

Since then, the program has flown quietly under the radar. The Office of Academic Enhancement makes no mention of it on its website. After the first year, students didn’t know that they got into the schools through the program. Some of the high schools did not want the students’ identities revealed, fearing that their classmates would then view them differently.

Donna Ford considers programs like these good strategies to provide opportunity for low-income minority students to get a top-flight education. Middle-class children who end up in neighborhood schools still get more opportunities, she says, since their parents are more likely than low-income parents to be able to provide extras to keep them engaged in school and learning.

“I would rather err on the side of inclusion,” Ford says. “We are neglecting a huge portion of our children.”

But getting a black child to go to a mostly white school, even if the school is high-performing, can be a tough sell.

“They are like, ‘Hell no, I am not going there,’” Ford says. “They worry that they will be isolated. We can play games with criteria, but if the reputation of the school is that there are no black kids, then we aren’t going to get them in there.”

As admissions director at Whitney Young, Nicole Neal was painstakingly aware of the privilege associated with the school. She often had parents and students begging and crying for spots. “It is tough, because there are so many limited options for people who want public education at that level,” she says. “My heart went out to the students and parents.”

But Neal, who is now an assistant principal at Shoesmith Elementary School in Kenwood, says she is not so sure removing bright students from neighborhood high schools is the best thing. “Why take the talent out of the community?”

“If they had gone to neighborhood schools, what would their experience have been?” she asks, referring to students who took advantage of the diversity transfers. “Socially they might have fared better. They may have had more opportunity to be involved. Because it took them so long to get home, many of them went straight home.”

Meanwhile, principals at the selective schools were initially concerned about the impact of the initiative.

The first set of students sent to Whitney Young had scored 200 points lower on admissions criteria than the lowest-scoring students admitted through the standard process. Because Whitney Young is centrally located and well-known in the black community, most students who were offered a seat jumped at it.

Principal Joyce Kenner says this put her school at a disadvantage compared to Payton and Northside, which got fewer of these students. “Whitney Young should not be punished for doing a good job,” she says.

Kenner, too, suspects black students shy away from Northside and Payton because they don’t see other students like them in the school and there are not extracurricular activities that interest them.

A lot of the students also accepted spots at Jones. Even before the initiative, Jones administrators were concerned that the school was losing diversity and had developed a program to target 8th-grade students from under-represented schools.

Jones Principal Paul Powers says the school’s location, on the south end of downtown near several train and bus lines, makes it ideal to draw a mix of students.

Among students interviewed by Catalyst who were admitted through this initiative, many say they were intimidated at first. Most had been in all-black elementary schools. But the initial trepidation didn’t last, and they quickly made friends and found their niche at their new schools.

The academic adjustment proved far more difficult. The principals at Jones, Young and Payton say they initially had money—$10,000 per student the first year, but none after that—to buy equipment like computers and graphing calculators. Some still provide bus cards for the students, out of their discretionary budgets.

They also continue mentoring and tutoring programs, which in some cases include students who weren’t admitted through the transfer program.

Devine says there are noticeable differences among the transfer students—and some have adjusted surprisingly well.

“One student might struggle because he doesn’t have strong reading skills, another because of math and another because they might not have a nurturing home environment,” Devine says. “Some kids do very, very well and you would never know they came through the program. There is a spectrum.”

At Jones, administrators expanded the Response to Intervention program. The basic idea behind RtI is that schools should intervene when students are having problems and should document how or whether the interventions are working.

Through this process, Jones Assistant Principal Carolyn Rownd says she realized that a lot of students were missing specific skills. Now, one freshman class each in English and math incorporates lessons in missing skills—for instance, vocabulary in American Literature. Many students also needed to improve their grammar.

“All kids need it,” Rownd says, noting that students admitted through the regular process also have academic deficits. “The best thing that came out of this cohort of kids was that it opened the door to the need for everyone to polish their skills. They made us do that. They gave us the kick.”

Some students say they were acutely aware that they were coming in at a lower academic level. Among the first group, 20 percent later transferred to other schools.

Lyric, a student at Jones, remembers crying a lot the first semester, frustrated that she was behind her classmates.
“Mrs. Rownd would tell me to push that frustration away and try it again,” says Lyric (her real name is not being used for privacy reasons). “She would ask me if I needed to go talk to the teacher. This motivated me to try harder and not to quit. It mattered to them if I did well.”

Lyric points to a desk in the main office with a computer on it, saying “I lived there.” At Jones, she quickly realized that it was better to stay at school and do her homework—her focus was better at school and she had access to the Internet.

When Lyric’s classmate, Ethan, was handed the letter offering him a spot a Jones, he was so excited he could barely read it. Then, Ethan says, reality set in. “I was intimated,” says Ethan (who also asked that his real name not be used). “I wondered if I was good enough. I felt like I was behind and I worried that I would feel really stupid.”

Ethan was salutatorian of his elementary school class and a straight-A student, but didn’t get offered a spot at any of the city’s elite schools. Until he got the letter, he planned to go to Julian, where his brother was a student.

In his first weeks at Jones, Ethan says he psyched himself out because he was so worried about keeping up. The amount of homework was much more intense than in elementary school. “I wasn’t used to bringing all my books home and studying,” he says.

His first progress report was no pretty sight. His grades fell from straight As to one D and a lot of Cs and Bs.
“I freaked out more than my mom,” he says.

Eventually Ethan calmed down and convinced himself that this was his chance to learn a lot. For many of the other students, the first few weeks were review. But Ethan says he studied everything he was given because much of it was new to him.

“I just thought to myself, if I try hard I can do it,” he says. “I just tried to reassure myself.”

He also took advantage of the outstretched hand from his teachers. Almost every day, he went to his math teacher and asked him to walk him through a task. Ethan also realized he had to give up some things, such as basketball.

He made it on the basketball team both freshman and sophomore year, but each time couldn’t play through the season because he had too much homework.

Ethan is a loner, and Rownd says when he first came to Jones he was very quiet. But he has changed since being there. “He is who he wants to be,” she says.

A recurring theme among the transfer students is one of educational opportunity and, perhaps more importantly, the freedom to be someone different than they feel they could have been at their neighborhood school. Lyric says she always imagined herself as worldly and sophisticated and that going to Jones has made her into the young woman she dreamed of being.

Anthony complains about the travel to Whitney Young, which includes depending on erratic buses. But he admits that his horizons have been expanded and he is now thinking about going to college in a different state, somewhere far away for sure. “When you come from Whitney Young, you can go anywhere,” he says. If he had gone to his neighborhood school, he believes, that wouldn’t have been the case.

Jakori, however, says that sometimes he thinks it would have been better to go to his neighborhood school. Many semesters, he nearly fails his classes before finishing up all the work and pulling his grade up to a barely C. “My mother is always on me about grades,” he says.

But at a neighborhood school, or a charter school where discipline is paramount, he acknowledges he might have had problems.

At Whitney Young and other selective schools, discipline is expected but the school climate is more relaxed and has space for creativity. Jakori describes himself as an artist.

When asked what he does that might get him into trouble in a stricter environment, Jakori smiles sheepishly.
“I am not a bad kid,” he says. “I just don’t appreciate restrictions.”

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