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WBEZ - 2024 - Charese Munoz - Whitney Young Mom and Spencer Elementary Teacher - June 3, 2024

Charese Munoz feels lucky that her son goes to Whitney Young Magnet High School, one of the city’s top test-in high schools. But it frustrates her that so few of the students she teaches at her Austin neighborhood elementary school can get into high schools like Whitney Young.

Marc C. Monaghan/For WBEZ

Chicago’s most marginalized students have almost no shot of getting into CPS’ elite schools

A student’s elementary school is a key predictor of who gets into a test-in high school, WBEZ found. Students from mostly low-income and Black neighborhood schools rarely get into these high schools.

Charese Munoz loves that her youngest son goes to a Chicago public high school where he’s pushed academically, dives into interests and learns new things. His school has a 73-page course guide and some classes that he’s taken include yoga, robotics, visual art and physics.

Antonio goes to Whitney Young Magnet High School on the Near West Side. It’s one of Chicago’s top performing selective enrollment high schools.

But as a teacher at Spencer Technology Academy, a neighborhood elementary school in Austin on the West Side, it pains her that so few of her students can access a high school like Whitney Young. The assigned neighborhood high school for Spencer students is among the 5% lowest performing schools in the state, though most students choose a charter or another district-run school.

“I have a good amount of students every year, who, when I ask ‘where did you get accepted,’ I’m like ‘ugh,’ ” Munoz said. “I know they should be at different types of more diverse, more resourced high schools, but they didn’t get accepted.”

WBEZ - 2024 - Charese Munoz - Whitney Young Mom and Spencer Elementary Teacher - June 3, 2024

Charese Munoz and her son, rising senior Antonio Munoz, in front of Whitney Young. She loves the opportunities students are exposed to at the school.

Marc C. Monaghan/For WBEZ

Chicago is in the midst of a heated debate about the future of the city’s 11 test-in selective enrollment schools after Mayor Brandon Johnson and the Chicago Board of Education this winter said they wanted to prioritize neighborhood schools and move away from a system of school choice that includes selective enrollment schools, magnets and charter schools. The board this summer is expected to propose changes to the admissions process for these selective schools to try to make them more equitable and accessible.

Johnson this spring wrote to the Illinois Senate president doubling down on this issue, highlighting a drop in Black, Latino and low-income students at the highest performing test-in schools, saying pointedly that “is not a system that reflects my values as mayor, or our values as a city.”

Chicago Public Schools’ student body is 82% Black or Latino, but only 42% of the students at the top five performing selective enrollment schools are Black or Latino. These schools — Jones, Lane, Payton, Northside and Whitney Young — are the best in the city and considered among the best in the state and even in the nation. For all 11 selective enrollment high schools, just 60% of students are Black or Latino.

And students from low-income families are also sorely underrepresented. Some 76% of CPS students are considered low income, but 46% of students at selective schools are from low-income families, according to state data.

WBEZ took a deeper look at these disparities to see what factors are driving them. An analysis of CPS data finds that a student’s elementary school is a key predictor of who gets into a selective enrollment high school.

Students from mostly low-income and Black neighborhood elementary schools like Spencer have almost no chance of getting into the city’s top five selective schools. Only 1% of 8th graders were offered a seat at one of these elite schools over the last three years, according to data analyzed by WBEZ.

Only 1% of 8th graders from mostly low-income and Black elementary schools were offered a seat at one of Chicago’s top five selective enrollment schools over the last three years, WBEZ found.

At the same time, elementary schools where more than half the students are not low-income — many with significant white or Asian populations — got almost a quarter of their students into the most elite schools. And one of out five students admitted to a top school did not attend a city public elementary school at all.

“Much of these disparities root back to just differences in socioeconomic status,” said Michael J. Petrilli, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute and president of the Fordham Institute, a think tank that advocates for school choice. “Black and Latino families are much, much, much more likely to be poor, and especially in deep poverty, than white and Asian students. And especially in some of these cities, there’s not that many middle class white families left, and those that remain tend to be upper middle class.”

The analysis also finds that levers in the admissions process to make it more fair are undercut by a provision that benefits the most advantaged students. This is something that CPS leaders have known for years, but have backed away from changing.

Selective enrollments as “be-all and end-all”

Counselor Carolyn Gordon says starting in sixth grade she spends some of her weekly visits to Langford Community Academy in West Englewood showing students how to research high schools.

Gordon stresses early on that if a student wants to go to a selective high school they have to do the work to be “eligible.” “Your grades better be up there,” she admonishes them. She explains that CPS uses grades from 7th grade, plus scores on the high school admissions exam to determine if they will get in.

Because they live in a poor area, Gordon’s students have a slightly easier time getting into the top selective enrollment high schools. For 70% of the seats, CPS factors in the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood where an applicant lives. This system was devised to maintain some diversity after racial quotas were abandoned after the lifting of a federal desegregation consent decree in 2009.

Gordon says some of her students have their heart set on selective schools, but it’s tough. No Langford student has gotten an offer in the last three years, not even from the least competitive schools — King and South Shore International, according to CPS data. The four other CPS selective schools are Lindblom, Brooks, Hancock and Westinghouse.

But Gordon doesn’t worry about it too much. “You can go to a neighborhood school and be in the honors program or do [college] dual enrollment,” she said. “If the goal is to get to college, the outcome can be similar.”

CPSSTRIKE-101819-17.JPG

Janice Jackson led Chicago Public Schools from 2017 to 2021. She tried to reduce the focus on selective enrollment schools and bring specialty and advanced programs to a variety of schools.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Janice Jackson, the CPS CEO from 2017 to 2021, agrees and tried to reduce the “be-all and end-all” attitude about selective high schools. Jackson and previous administrations focused on bringing International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and other specialty programs to more high schools.

But in some circles, the top selective enrollment high schools are considered sacred cows. Alumni and parents and some aldermen blasted the board for suggesting that changes might be coming to these schools, saying they were destroying what is “working.” The state Legislature almost passed a bill to prevent any changes to their admissions policies and budgets until a new, partially-elected board takes over in 2025.

To stop that bill, the Illinois Senate president asked Johnson to write a letter pledging not to close any selective enrollments, though it does not appear that was ever on the table. Johnson also committed to ensuring testing remained part of the admissions process.

But Johnson and the board are insistent they want CPS’ forthcoming five-year strategic plan to address some issues with selective enrollments, which they see as part of a school choice system that “furthers stratification and inequity.”

Experts say these disparities are rooted in long-standing structural problems. From the earliest grades, there’s a wide gap in performance in school. Some call it the achievement gap, while others call it an opportunity gap.

But the way the selective enrollment admissions is set up contributes to the disparity: 30% of seats at all selective schools are reserved for the highest scoring students, with no consideration of their background. Some 55% of these so-called rank order seats last year went to students from Chicago’s wealthiest areas. When looking only at the top five schools, 75% went to those students, WBEZ’s analysis found.

Just months after he took over CPS, in spring 2021, CEO Pedro Martinez proposed getting rid of this set aside.

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Mayor Brandon Johnson looks on as Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez speaks to a classroom of students at Kenwood Academy High School in Aug. 2023. Martinez proposed eliminating part of the selective enrollment admissions process that advantages wealthier students but never took action.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“I believe academic ability is distributed equally across our city and that access to our selective enrollment schools should be more equitable,” Martinez said in a video where he explained the proposed change.

But soon after Martinez stopped talking about the issue and the board never considered it. When asked about it recently, CPS responded with a statement, saying that Martinez and “our team determined that we need to undertake a more comprehensive approach to increasing equity among all schools, including our selective enrollment and magnet schools, and have been working toward that end for the past three years.”

For example, beginning in 2022, Martinez implemented universal testing for 8th graders for the first time. Previously, students went to a testing center on a Saturday if they scored above a certain level. Now all students take a shorter test in school. With only one year of universal testing, it is too early to tell whether it is making a difference.

The national picture

Only about 165 public test-in high schools exist across the nation, and most are on the East Coast or in Midwest cities, according to the Fordham Institute.

Across the country, other school districts have tried to improve access to their elite high schools in recent years. Thomas Jefferson High School in northern Virginia, considered one of the best in the country, in 2020 overhauled its policies to try to increase diversity. It eliminated the use of standardized tests and now admits the top students from every middle school as part of its admissions process.

There’s also more attention being paid to the demographics of gifted and talented programs in elementary schools as they prepare students for selective schools, said Halley Potter, director of PK-12 education policy at The Century Foundation, which describes itself as a “progressive, independent” think tank.

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Halley Potter of The Century Foundation, which helped devise an admission system for CPS’ selective enrollment schools that maintains some diversity among the student population.

Bridget Badore/Courtesy of The Century Foundation

Despite Chicago’s issues, it turns out CPS’ selective schools have some advantages over other test-in schools around the country. The Century Foundation helped CPS devise its admission system, which tries to maintain some diversity without racial quotas.

Six of Chicago’s selective enrollments serve almost all Black or Latino students, making the overall demographics of CPS’ 11 schools more reflective of the overall district than test-in schools in other cities, according to a 2019 report by the Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C. think tank.

“I usually pretty quickly point to Chicago as an example, not because everything’s perfect, but because if you compare it with what some other cities are doing that have selective admission schools and don’t have any kind of diversity mechanism, the results in terms of who’s actually getting access to these schools is pretty different,” Potter said.

But the level of selectivity varies widely in Chicago’s selective schools. At two, King and South Shore International, the bar to get in is relatively low. Though many students perform better, some students got offers with just over 500 points out of 900. That means they could have scored near the 50th percentile on the entrance exam and had a B average. These schools struggle to get qualified students to enroll and only 50% of their seats are filled.

Big picture, the Chicago Board of Education and others are questioning whether separate schools or programs are really the best approach for high-achieving students.

“Should we tinker with the admissions system or change the whole structure,” Potter asked. “Those are the conversations we are having.”

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Brianna Ibrahim, 14, a rising ninth grader at Northside College Prep, and her mom, Joy Ibrahim, in front of the top CPS selective enrollment school where Brianna will start in August. She said it meant everything to make her parents proud.

Peyton Reich/Sun-Times

How eighth graders see it

For some students, getting into a selective enrollment high school looms large. They are the result of years of tireless work.

Brianna Ibrahim, the child of immigrants, got straight As at her neighborhood elementary school and went to an after-school program twice a week to prepare for the admissions test. When she opened her acceptance email and saw Northside College Prep, her mom was ecstatic. It meant everything to make her parents proud, she said.

“My dad is a truck driver and he works a lot in the sun and my mom is a nurse and she works countless hours,” Brianna said. “I just wanted to reciprocate.”

At Spencer, Munoz says many of her students are not in the running for a spot in a selective high school and they don’t stress about it. But she says she always has some students at her Austin school who are “brilliant,” performing way above others.

More than other children, she says some of her students could really benefit from a school where they are around other high achievers who can push them.

But, Munoz says, few of them ever get the chance.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on X @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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