Chicago's middle class not interested in 'hidden gem' high schools

Fifteen years after Chicago embedded International Baccalaureate programs in tough neighborhood schools, the programs have not attracted the middle class.

April 25, 2012

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(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
IB students don't enter high school with sky-high test scores, but U of C researchers find the program gets a high percentage to qualify for the most selective colleges.
(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Parents say they are concerned about safety at neighborhood high schools where IB programs are located. School officials say those concerns are exaggerated.

On Eight Forty-Eight professor Paul Tarc of Western University in Ontario talks to Tony Sarabia about the evolution of the International Baccalaureate program. It was developed in the 1960s for the children of diplomats and has grown considerably since, especially in North America. Tarc, who wrote about the I.B. in his book Enduring Dreams, Global Tensions, takes a look at the curriculum and whether it gets results.


Middle- and upper-income Chicagoans scramble to get their kids into Chicago’s top high schools, turning to test prep, private tutors, and educational consultants.

If their kids don’t get in, for many it’s private school or the suburbs.

But Chicago has another set of high-quality high school programs—considered gems of the district—that middle-income parents have rejected. WBEZ looks at why.

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Hidden away inside a dozen Chicago public high schools—struggling high schools, really—is some of the best teaching in the city.

That’s according to University of Chicago researcher Melissa Roderick.

RODERICK: It feels like a bunch of kids learning to be intellectuals. Critical thinkers, problem solvers, learning to think differently…

Roderick has been studying these International Baccalaureate programs, which the city embedded in tough high schools 15 years ago. She can’t stop talking about them:

RODERICK: …really great academic skills and a whole conception of themselves as learners...

IB classes are rigorous, there’s an international focus.

RODERICK: The ability to write. Everyone talks about writing, writing, writing.

Roderick’s research says these IB kids get great results, even though they don’t start out as the highest scoring kids in the city. 

LUTTON: So basically they come in with test scores that are lower than the selective enrollment kids…
RODERICK: …and they walk out I would say highly qualified and more qualified.

One private school in Chicago charges $26,000 a year for the same International Baccalaureate curriculum, originally developed for the children of diplomats.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is expanding IB, and has pitched that expansion as a hook to keep the middle class in the city.  Only thing is, at least until now, the middle class hasn’t been interested.

PARIS: It’s a nonstarter.

Jim Paris lives near Morgan Park High School. He doesn’t care how good the school’s IB program is: he has police officer friends who work in the neighborhood.

PARIS: And they would have my head examined if I brought my two daughters to that school.
LUTTON: Why? What’s going on over there?
PARIS: Drugs, prostitution. There’s shootings, there’s just a plethora of gang problems over there.

A police helicopter flies over Morgan Park and other South Side high schools at dismissal some days.

At Hyde Park High School one recent afternoon, two police cars are parked, ready for fights. An officer tells me there was already a fight earlier, during school. He says police took 4 or 5 students out. Locked ‘em up, he says.

I tell assistant principal Antonio Ross that’s the sort of thing that makes parents with any other option reluctant to send their kids here—no matter how good the IB program is.

ROSS: That happens anywhere, though. I mean, incidents happen—you’re dealing with 14-,  15-, 16-, 17-, 18-year-old students. Things happen. And usually those kids that are not involved in those kinds of activities, they never have problems in four years of high school.

Inside Hyde Park High, Deshonda Wright helps coordinate the International Baccalaureate program. She agrees safety concerns are exaggerated.

WRIGHT: Absolutely, without a doubt. Exaggerated, yes, yes.

Wright faces other obstacles to attracting students. Selective enrollment schools have cachet; the neighborhood IBs don’t.

Parents who look up Hyde Park’s test scores see the dismal average for the whole school. The IB kids score miles above that, but there’s no way for a parent to know.

Hyde Park High sits at the edge of one of the most diverse middle-class neighborhoods in Chicago. But in the IB program here, 9 of 10 kids are poor. Ninety-nine percent are black. That means for now, IB kids are studying an international curriculum in a diverse city—from a segregated classroom.

Christine Whitley is an educational consultant who helps parents navigate Chicago school admissions.

WHITLEY: People say, ‘Oh, we live in a diverse city. We want diversity in our kids’ classrooms.’ But at the same time, white people won’t put their kids in a school that’s 99 percent black.

Whitley says she’s recommended neighborhood IBs, but says they’re a tough sell with parents.

The principal at North Side Senn High School, Susan Lofton, hears all the time there are not enough good high school options in the city.

LOFTON: It’s frustrating. It’s one of the reasons why I’m sitting here talking to you now. We need to get the word out. The glamorous schools—and they’ve earned it, props to them. They have had a lot of media attention. The smaller schools with the IB, the neighborhood schools… there has not been a lot of attention paid.

Lofton has spent hours plugging IB. Her best advertising is probably her students. I met a group of IB freshmen hanging out after class one day. Their families hail from Nigeria, Ghana, China, Pakistan.

SENN IB STUDENTS: When you wake up in the morning it’s like, ‘I can’t wait to go to Senn! Let’s go!’ I can’t wait to meet my friends…like first period I have Survey of Literature. And it’s fun! I can’t wait to get there!  ‘Cause we have educated debates. We get different viewpoints from everybody.
LUTTON: Like what did you do today? Do you remember?
SENN IB STUDENT: Oh, we did Romeo and Juliet—and we’re putting it in our own translations because we’re gonna act in front of people. And here’s the thing about the IB program…

Some days, she tells me, she feels like an author, like a philosopher.

Whitley, the educational consultant, says there are lots of reasons why Chicago’s middle class might start signing on to the neighborhood IB programs: Increased competition at selective schools. An economy that makes it harder to move to the suburbs or choose private school. A broader cultural shift back to the city.

But even as teachers and principals continue to wonder why middle-class families won’t go to the neighborhood IBs, some worry about what might happen if the programs do catch on. David Gregg is an IB coordinator at Senn:

GREGG: Part of me almost likes the fact that it was sort of a well-kept secret, because students who are lower scoring have been able to take advantage of this program.

Gregg fears that the kids who most need what IB has to offer—low-income and minority students, first-generation college goers—will get squeezed out if more privileged kids with higher test scores decide they want to come.
 

Chicago's high school neighborhood IB programs
School# IB students%AfAm%Latino%Asian%White%Low-IncACT avg for IB*
AMUNDSEN HS2639592299219.8
BOGAN HS1405441119418.6
CURIE HS369682579122.7
HUBBARD HS1671181449622.6
HYDE PARK HS82991008919.7
KELLY HS4730673019322.4
MORGAN PARK HS268962017222
PROSSER HS2271779139221
SENN HS20925491478920.7
STEINMETZ HS1458676199419.9
TAFT HS1783204704324
WASHINGTON HS399387079118.4

*ACT avg is the school's average 11th grade ACT score for current seniors seeking an IB Diploma. All race, ethnic and low-income data is from 2011-12 school year. Source: CPS.  

The neighborhood IB programs were modeled after Lincoln Park's IB program, which began more than three decades ago. Lincoln Park's program is highly exclusive.     

School# IB students%AfAm%Latino%Asian%White%Low-IncACT avg for IB*
LINCOLN PARK HS37472022433427.6