Chicago's best high schools: Who gets in, who doesn't

Half of CPS grammar schools don't send even one child to any of the top four selective enrollment high schools.

March 9, 2012

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(Photo Courtesy of Whitney Young Magnet High School)
Whitney Young Magnet High School.

Chicago has four elite public high schools. They’re the highest scoring schools in the state, better than top suburban schools. Competition to get is fierce, and ratcheted up again this year. WBEZ looks at who gets into Chicago’s best schools, and who does not.


Even if you don’t live in the city you can probably name at least one of Chicago’s top high schools: Whitney Young, Northside College Prep, Walter Payton, Jones.

Now, take a guess: what percent of freshmen sitting in those schools today graduated from private grammar schools?

LABOWITZ: I mean, that Payton number blows my mind. That just seems so high. That one-third of the kids entering that school are from private school.

That’s Rebecca Labowitz, who runs a blog called CPS Obsessed.

There’s a lot of anxiety this time of year—kids getting acceptance letters, or not. WBEZ analyzed the current freshman classes at Chicago’s top four high schools for some idea of what’s happening.

We found that 29 percent of current freshmen at Walter Payton College Prep graduated from private grammar schools. At the other elite high schools, the number is right around 20 percent.

% of Students from Private Grammar Schools
Enrolled in Current Freshman Class

And private school kids make up only around 12 percent of those testing to get into these schools.

SchoolPercentage of Private School Applicants
* Figures are for students who applied in the 2010-11 school year for enrollment as freshmen in the 2011-12 school year. Source: CPS 

Labowitz says this sort of thing sends sparks flying on her web site, where parents share horror stories of the grueling admissions process, and debate whether to leave the city.

LABOWITZ: Some of the CPS parents get frustrated because it almost feels unfair to have these private school families swoop in and take these few good seats.

But that is not the view of many Payton students.

BOYS: We came from private school, but I think it’s a good ratio. I think that’s a proper amount, considering this is a public school and it’s open to people from any background at any school.

These two freshmen graduated from a $19,000-a-year grammar school. But Payton students insist: Everybody here earned their spot through hard work.

ASIA: I know I couldn’t afford to go to a private school. I didn’t have the money to go to a private school, so I had to do testing for classical schools and for gifted centers.

Junior Asia Sumerlin went to Keller Regional Gifted Center for grammar school. That’s one of a tiny group of elite CPS elementary schools that feed the elite college preps in big numbers. They’re mostly gifted and magnet schools. They make up fewer than 1 percent of schools in the system. But together with the private schools, their students win more than half the seats in Chicago’s top four high schools.

Top Feeder Schools to Chicago's 'Elite Four' Selective Enrollment High Schools     
Feeder SchoolJonesNorthsidePaytonYoungTotal
William Howard Taft High School Academic Center*21*1239
Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School*1311*36
Abraham Lincoln Elementary School**15*30
Hawthorne Elementary Scholastic Academy***1128
Ogden International High School***1126
Robert Healy Elementary School****21
Thomas A Edison Regional Gifted Center ES*10**19
LaSalle Elementary Language Academy****19
Andrew Jackson Elementary Language Academy***1119
Ole A Thorp Elementary Scholastic Academy ***17
Mark Skinner Elementary School  **17
Lenart Elementary Regional Gifted Center* **17
Walt Disney Magnet Elementary School****15
Augustus H Burley Elementary School****12
Annie Keller Elementary Gifted Magnet School*  *12
Jean Baptiste Beaubien Elementary School****11
Chicago Intl Charter - Bucktown****11
Table shows number of graduates from each grammar school currently enrolled as freshmen in Chicago's top selective enrollment high schools.
* indicates fewer than 10 students. WBEZ has advocated for CPS to release numbers less than 10. The school district argues that would violate FERPA, a federal law intended to protect the privacy of student educational records.
WBEZ requested a breakdown, with school names, of private schools feeding into top CPS high schools. CPS denied that request. The district says compiling that data would be too onerous.

CAMMON: That really doesn’t seem fair to me. I think, it’s like you’ll have to pay for them to go to a good elementary school for them to get in a good high school.

Lisa Cammon has a son at Brown Elementary, a CPS school in the neighborhood near the United Center, around the old Henry Horner Homes.

WBEZ’s analysis of feeder schools shows a trend nobody is talking about:  Half of Chicago grammar schools send no one to the top four high schools. Not their valedictorians. Not their straight-A students. Not the kids who’ve worked hard their entire grammar school career.

View Which CPS schools send students to the 'Elite 4'? in a full screen map

Brown is one of those schools.  Kenya Sadler is the principal there.

SADLER: Our top performing student last year scored in the 825 range—

(That’s out of 900 total.)

SADLER: and no, unfortunately it was not enough.

Sadler is determined to get her students into these top schools. Some do get into the city’s less selective schools and military academies.

But Sadler’s up against a disturbing shift in American education—a widening achievement gap between rich and poor children.

SADLER: I’m not going to say that it’s not fair. For me, I’m just going to accept the challenge.

Chicago has a whole formula to try to give kids from less advantaged neighborhoods a leg up when it comes to getting into these top schools.  But WBEZ found in spite of algorithms and formulas, if you walk into the city’s best high schools, freshmen from the wealthiest parts of town outnumber freshmen from the poorest areas by a ratio of two to one.

Percent of Students in Each Socioeconomic Tier
at Selective Enrollment High Schools
School NameTier 1 %Tier 2 %Tier 3 %Tier 4 %
NORTHSIDE PREP HS16.5%18.0%24.8%40.6%
PAYTON HS20.2%20.6%25.1%34.2%
YOUNG HS20.2%20.5%20.7%38.5%
JONES HS16.3%18.9%25.8%38.9%
LANE HS19.0%18.6%23.9%38.5%
LINDBLOM HS18.6%20.3%32.6%28.5%
GEORGE WESTINGHOUSE HS33.9%33.0%20.9%12.2%
KING HS27.3%22.9%34.6%15.1%
BROOKS HS17.5%16.9%36.6%29.0%
CPS divides the city into four socioeconomic tiers based on such factors as income, homeownership rates, and quality of nearby schools. Tier 1 is the most disadvantaged. Tier 4 is the most advantaged.
Data is for freshman class, the most recent class for which complete data is available.

That's despite the fact that students from all tiers apply to selective enrollment high schools in roughly equal numbers.

Applications by Socioeconomic Tier for Selective Enrollment High Schools
School NameTier 1 %Tier 2 %Tier 3 %Tier 4 %
Grand Total22.6%25.4%28.8%23.2%
While students from all tiers applied to selective enrollment high schools at about the same rate, students from the most advantaged areas of the city were accepted at much higher rates.
Data is for the application period that took place during the 2010-11 school year. Students would currently be freshmen (see above chart).

Texas had a situation a little bit like Chicago’s. Its public universities admitted kids every year based mostly on test scores and grades. Students from good schools and bad schools competed against each other for limited seats. In the late 1990s, that changed. University of Texas spokesman Matt Flores:

FLORES: Lawmakers came up with this Top 10 Percent Rule, which effectively says if you graduate in the top 10 percent of your high school class, you would be guaranteed admission to the school of your choice—to the public institution of your choice.

Flores says kids don’t control what zip code they live in, and the new system rewards them for doing well at whatever school they attend.

FLORES: There were actually some high schools in the far reaches of Texas that in their histories had never sent a single student to UT-Austin. And I know that since that time, many of those high schools—if not all—have now sent at least somebody to UT.

Chicago Public Schools enrollment chief Katie Ellis says Chicago considered a system like that when it switched admissions criteria two years ago.

ELLIS: The challenge becomes, these students still are going to have to compete at very, very challenging environments....We try to come up with a careful balance between letting in the top scoring students in the city but also having socio-economic diversity, and those are sometimes contradictory.

Sadler, the principal from Brown Elementary near the Horner Homes, says she’d love a system that gave her hardest working students an equal opportunity to go to Chicago’s best high schools.

Until then, she says, Brown will just have to get better faster than more privileged schools.

Source for data in all tables is Chicago Public Schools. More extensive feeder school information is available in the Excel file below, under EXTRAs.