Real school choice requires strong neighborhood high schools

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Beatriz Ponce de Leon

Beatriz Ponce de León

It seems that few people believe in neighborhood public high schools these days. And that’s unfortunate, because neighborhood schools are central to building a better Chicago that benefits every resident. To have a city of strong neighborhoods, we need strong neighborhood public high schools.

In Chicago, these schools serve over 47,000 students, or 42.5% percent of all CPS 9th – 12th graders. No other type of high school serves this many students.

The opening of high schools in the last 12 years has led to declining enrollment at many neighborhood high schools. Still, these schools, which serve students of all abilities and backgrounds, continue to play an important role in our city. They act as community anchors, increase neighborhood cohesion, and have the potential to guarantee a high quality education.

We know that students and their families are overwhelmed by the stress and anxiety that comes from selective school testing, the charter lottery gamble, and the uncertainty of not knowing which schools are actually doing well beyond test scores. Families that have the means turn to private schools or move to the suburbs in search of a guarantee that their children will receive a high quality education without the admissions madness.

Other families, those with the least wealth and most burdens, don’t even engage in the high school application process. Mary Pattillo’s research on Chicago school choice demonstrates that these families have a hard time playing the school choice game. Barriers include lack of information, resources and time needed to apply, concerns about their child’s safety outside their neighborhood, and inability to pay for travel to a school beyond their community. These families rely on neighborhood schools.pie chart for beatriz

If a better system of safe, high quality neighborhood public schools existed today, countless families that might otherwise leave the city would remain in Chicago, and all students, regardless of income or zip code, would have guaranteed access to a phenomenal education.

Many Chicagoans do believe in neighborhood public high schools. Across the city, individuals, schools, universities and organizations are dedicated to making these schools powerful charging stations for youth. They’re training principals and their teams to foster school climates of trust and high expectations, developing the capacity of teachers to employ the Next Generation Science Standards, giving students learning experiences beyond their neighborhoods, strengthening relationships with elementary schools so students transition seamlessly into ninth grade, working on getting students to and through college, and empowering parents to be the strongest advocates for their children. The district has been a partner in several of these efforts but unfortunately the commitment and resources have been inconsistent.

Our city ought to celebrate and replicate these efforts system-wide with sustainable, long-term investments. Instead, the current climate of unbridled school competition has diverted resources and support away from neighborhood schools, putting them on an unequal playing field and exacerbating our city’s social inequality.

The result? A system of high schools deeply segregated by race, class, and opportunity that perpetuates our city’s glaring disparities in youth unemployment and violence.  Strong neighborhood public high schools can disrupt these disparities by providing high quality learning opportunities for students both in and out the classroom, grounding them in their communities and connecting them to the wider world.

It is time to put our neighborhood public high schools front and center. We can start by putting a hold on opening or closing any high schools until our city engages in a planning process that includes educators, community residents, and city planners to determine the right number and placement of schools.

This is just the first step in ensuring all our students receive the education they deserve.

Generation All and a growing network of partners invite every Chicagoan to rally around our neighborhood public high schools. Get to know them. Find a way to partner with them. Talk with principals and teachers about the policies that make their work easier and those that get in the way. Pay attention and speak up when issues affecting neighborhood schools are in the news or on the agenda.

We know that that tomorrow’s skilled workforce, tomorrow’s informed citizens, tomorrow’s engaged parents and tomorrow’s visionary leaders can come from today’s students. All of them. To shake Chicago’s reputation as a tale of two cities, we must invest in our neighborhood public high schools.

Beatriz Ponce de León is the executive director of Generation All.

  • Daniel Kramer

    Great Op-Ed, thank-you Beatriz!

    The concept of school choice is, at its heart, a great thing: there is a unique investment a family makes when choosing a school, and that commitment can carry a student into early successes that are so critical to how they will see themselves as a student. But hand in hand with all of these new/greater options and flexibility MUST come fairness – and that fairness has many facets.

    As a neighborhood high school Principal, I feel both the gravitas and burden of being in a school with 100 years of history. We are now competing with new selective enrollment, new charter, and even other neighborhood schools. It is critical to our success in this marketplace (as evidenced in sustained enrollment and ongoing academic improvement) that we offer the opportunities and ideas that are attractive to families. The district must continue to ‘seed’ our schools with programs and partnerships that allow us to stay current. These can include STEM programs, Arts programs, career/CTE options, advanced academics like IB and Early College. In recent years, there have been numerous such options, but as we enter these austere times, there is great anxiety among Principals that this well may soon dry up.

    Neighborhood high schools desperately need outside partnerships with dynamic local industries and leaders that are themselves seeking be support workforce development. It is critical that these partners understand the dramatically downsized operational teams many schools are now operating under, and are ready to reach out themselves to schools, not just waiting to be reached out to.

    Here is a critical place city and state leaders can become part of creating the solutions we need – beyond the budget quagmire none seem of us to be able to see beyond. Help us find those key partners. They will discover schools full of amazing kids and teachers, and an opportunity to be part of Chicago history that in many cases, goes back more than a century.

    If we are going to be here a hundred years from now, THIS is what we need.

    Dan Kramer, Principal
    Carl Schurz High School, proudly neighborhood, CPS

  • Beatriz Ponce de León

    Thanks Principal Kramer. Thanks also for sharing your perspective. We love the great work happening at Schurz and hope you will join us when Generation All launches our action plan for revitalizing neighborhood high schools in April. More details to come!