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Curious City

Were Chicago's Public Schools Ever Good?

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Our questioner Julie had completely forgotten she asked this when we reached out to her. She lives in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood and didn’t want to say much more about herself. But here’s what she wanted to know:

There is reporting about how Chicago Public Schools is slowly getting better. Was there ever a time when they were good?

As an education reporter, I’ve heard many versions of this question during my time covering Chicago Public Schools, and that’s partly why I wanted to take a stab at answering it. But I also wanted to tackle this question because it asks us to think about our relationship with the public schools and what we expect them to do.

Measuring a school or school district’s success or failure is no easy feat, and it’s even harder to measure over time because the standards and metrics have changed significantly. A recent study from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research stated that “discrepancies are due to myriad issues with publicly reported data — including changes in test content and scoring — that make year-over-year comparisons nearly impossible without complex statistical analyses.”

Because the definition of “good” is subjective, we solicited your help in defining how to use it while reporting this story. Some of you suggested using standardized test scores, which go back decades. (Schools haven’t used the same test over time, making comparisons difficult.) Others suggested we consider grades or safety.

Ultimately, we decided to look at when CPS did a good job preparing students for successful careers; that is: When did the district best prepare people to be productive, taxpaying citizens? Career readiness is a consistent expectation, and it’s possible to compare one era to another.

The 1940s, a Golden Era?

Based on this measurement and what historians and other experts suggested, the 1940s would seem the best contender for the district’s golden era of public education. Schools provided valuable workforce training that was needed in the local industries, like steel and iron work, retail and office or clerical jobs.

The 1940s saw the culmination of a series of unprecedented investments in public education, mostly from the federal government. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 funneled millions of dollars into vocational training. Chicago schools set up programs in accounting, drafting, welding, and even “household arts.”

After a lag during the Great Depression, the war effort and New Deal programs brought even more vocational programs. One example: In 1939, the city built Chicago Vocational High School, and quickly turned it over to the U.S. Navy to train young men in aviation mechanics. (By the late 1940s, control of the school returned to the Chicago Board of Education.)

Another example to point to: More than a dozen local unions collaborated with and supported the programs at Washburne Trade School to train future electricians and carpenters.
New Deal programs of the 1940s brought more vocational programs to public education, like this automobile shop class at Albert Grannis Lane Manual Training High School, now named Lane Technical College Prep High School in Chicago's North Center Neighborhood. (Courtesy Chuckman's nostalgia and memorabilia website)

But Dionne Danns, an education historian at Indiana University, provides a fast reality check when it comes to assessing the era. She points out that, at the turn of the century, and into the 1940s, people did not even need a high school diploma. In fact, most people weren’t even finishing elementary school.

“You didn’t have to go to school for a job,” Danns says. “You went to school because they wanted you to go. They were opening more schools because they wanted immigrants to go to school and learn what it meant to be American.”

And more importantly, Danns says, the 1940s can’t count as a golden era of public schooling because schools were not providing education to all children; African Americans, Latinos and other minority groups did not have access to the same public schools as whites.

Women were just beginning to gain access to colleges and careers. Many attended the Lucy Flower Vocational School, which offered a home economics program and some two-year programs in sewing, dressmaking and millinery (hat-making).

A study out of Loyola University pegged Chicago Vocational High School enrollment in 1946 at 2,721 students. Just 204 were girls. Another all-girls school opened that year. Richards Vocational High School had an enrollment of 230 women and offered curriculum in home arts, dressmaking, beauty culture, and bookkeeping among other things.

“We can’t underestimate the role schools played in maintaining inequalities in society,” Danns says.

Locations of integrated and segregated elementary schools in Chicago, 1964. (Source: Board of Education)
Better schools, more students

What about looking for the CPS golden era of career readiness just a bit later, perhaps sometime in the ‘50s or ‘60s? It’s tempting, because the inequalities we saw in the 1940s were challenged in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools are “inherently unequal” and therefore, unconstitutional.

By the 1960s, African Americans were enrolling in public schools that had been historically all white. And for a while, schools were integrating.

In 1964 Paul Goren (today, the Superintendent of District 65 in Evanston) was in kindergarten in the city’s Avalon Park neighborhood. Hanging on his office wall are three class photos: one each from 1964, 1967 and 1968. In the 1964 photo, half of the smiling children are white, the other half are African American. The 1968 picture, though, shows just three white students.

Goren says that in his class of about thirty or so, those last three white children were the last three white children left in the entire school.

“What I remember very distinctly, and again, it’s characterized in the pictures up above, was arguments kids were making saying, ‘We’re moving!’ ‘Oh, why are you moving?’ And the answer was because the schools are not good,” Goren recalls. “That sort of confused me, because the schools didn’t seem to be any different than they were when they were frankly, all white.”

That same year, an advisory panel on integration warned the Chicago Board of Education that whites were fleeing the district in mass numbers.

The board dragged its feet and did little to prevent white flight during the 1960s, but by 1970 the board started systematic attempts to integrate the schools.

It created the first generation of magnet schools, many of which are still successful today: Whitney Young, Disney, and Inter-American, among others. They were endowed with special programs and extra resources that would attract white students and African Americans. Students applied from all over the city and their names were essentially, picked out of a hat.

Metro High School's curriculum was built on the idea of the city being a classroom, and held classes at places like the Shedd Aquarium and Second City. (Source: Metro High School yearbook, 1978)

Goren went to one such school, called Metro High (or, Chicago Public High School for Metropolitan Studies). Not only was it an experiment in diversity, the school had a unique curriculum. Goren took classes across the city: marine biology at Shedd Aquarium, animal behavior at Lincoln Park Zoo, and public speaking at Second City.

“For me the golden era was my time at Metro High School,” Goren says. The school closed in 1991.

Paul Goren, right, at Metro High School in 1975.

Goren says many of the kids who attended Metro and other magnet schools were propelled into good careers in law and medicine. He has several friends who are now teachers in the area, as well.

But a lot of Chicago kids weren’t that lucky. Magnet schools became isolated islands of success, but if you didn’t get into one, public education was a mixed bag.  

Among other problems, inequalities persisted. Danns says when schools started to integrate, local trade unions pulled support from Washburne Trade School. An article from the Chicago Tribune in 1986, mentioned that in 1963 fewer than 2 percent of apprentices at Washburne were black.

In other words, even with years of effort on the part of the district, a career-ready curriculum remained out of reach for large swaths of CPS students.

'Worst in the nation'

There are few reasons to argue that CPS was at its best in the ‘80s, because (among other reasons), CPS ran into financial troubles throughout the decade. Also, between 1979 to 1987, Chicago teachers went on strike nine times. Districts started measuring achievement and looking at dropout rates, and in Chicago, things did not look great.

In 1987, then-U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett famously characterized Chicago schools as “the worst” in the nation. More than half of all students were dropping out of high school at the same time the value of a high school degree was increasing. Factory jobs had all but disappeared and the country was still recovering from the 1982 recession.

Above: A short video recollection from a CPS teacher about the 1980s strike. (YouTube/Chicago Teachers Union)

Susan Lofton was a teacher in the early 1990s and vividly remembers being locked out because CPS couldn’t make payroll.

“All of a sudden was told don’t go to work on Monday,” Lofton says. “I remember going to an unemployment office where there was literally a roped off area for teachers to go be processed.”

In 1988, the Illinois General Assembly passed the first Chicago School Reform Act, creating local school councils at each individual school. Many schools improved under this model, but others did not.

In 1995, the state gave total control of CPS to mayor Richard M. Daley. This started the last era we’re going to consider.  

More success than we realize

I’m going to suggest something that might surprise you. Maybe, just maybe, we’re living in CPS’ golden era right now.

There’s a growing body of evidence that Chicago’s schools are improving quickly and — for certain populations of students — doing better than other districts. U.S. News and World Report just released its annual rankings of the nation’s best high schools: Six of the top 10 in Illinois are in CPS and another three in the top 20.

“When the state’s not doing well or not making great progress, there’s always some number of people who say, ‘Well maybe that’s just because Chicago’s not doing well. Maybe they’re just dragging down the rest of the state,’” says Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, a bipartisan group focused on improving the state’s education policy. “What we found is that’s not true. Chicago has made steady gains both academically and in terms of some critical outcomes, like graduation.”

Steans’ group looked at scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, from 2003 to 2013 and found Chicago students grew 11 points on the 8th grade math test and 7 points on the 4th grade reading test. The state grew just 7 points and 3 points, respectively.

Advance Illinois also compiled state graduation data from 2014 to compare Chicago with other districts for certain subgroups of students. They found that Latino students enrolled in CPS are more likely to graduate high school than their counterparts in many suburban districts, including Maine Township High Schools and Evanston Township High School.

“It’s so counterintuitive to what they think they know about Chicago that they just disregard it,” Steans says of the data. “There’s been so much noise, with the teachers strike and the school closings. The political heat and noise tends to crowd out what’s actually beneath and behind that.”

Paul Zavitkovsky, a leadership coach and assessment specialist at the Urban Education Leadership Program at the University of Illinois - Chicago, may be able to help. In a forthcoming study, Zavitkovsky’s findings mirror what Advance Illinois found.

“On an apples-for-apples basis, if you compare yourself with your counterparts based on race and socioeconomic status in other parts of the state, you have a higher probability of having a better educational experience in Chicago,” he says.

But Zavitkovsky goes further. He shared a preliminary version of the report with WBEZ that showed students in the 75th percentile for 4th grade math achievement grew 20 points between 2003 and 2013. The performance of that subgroup in the rest of the state grew only 3 points in the same amount of time.

However, he’s not convinced CPS is in a “golden era” because of all this data. From Zavitkovsky’s vantage, the real win is that we have more information than we’ve ever had before,and that can better inform the national conversation about public schools.

“We’re better positioned now than we’ve ever been to know what we have to do in order to be able to get that kind of stuff into the hands and into the heads of more than just a small percentage of kids, coming primarily from the most privileged families in America,” Zavitowsky says.

There’s no easy way to measure job readiness and whether these improvements translate into more successful alumni. Short of picking up the phone and calling all the former students, CPS does not follow students into employment.

The closest indicator available is college persistence, and CPS also made gains in it during the last decade. A report from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found that between 2006 and 2014, the percentage of CPS students earning a bachelor’s degree within 6 years of high school graduation jumped from 8 percent to 14 percent. The national rate is 18 percent.

Greater Expectations

I’ve been reporting on CPS for more than four years and I’ve covered a lot of the noise and dysfunction Steans mentioned. But I’ve also reported on schools that are trying everything to improve.

They include schools like Senn High School in Edgewater. Susan Lofton, the teacher who remembers being in the unemployment line back in the 1990s, is now the principal at Senn. When she took over in 2010, the school had a bad name.

“A-B-S,” Lofton says, “Anywhere But Senn.”

Lofton created the Senn Arts magnet program and expanded the rigorous International Baccalaureate program, which had long been a hidden gem.

She also recruited drama teacher Joel Ewing away from Walter Payton College Prep, a prestigious selective enrollment school.

Joel Ewing teaches a drama class at Senn High School. Previously a teacher at Walter Payton College Prep, Ewing says he accepted the position at Senn because he saw a void that needed to be filled. (WBEZ/Jesse Dukes)

“When I took the job at Senn Arts, I got crooked heads,” Ewing says. “‘Why would you leave Walter Payton? That's clearly one of the best schools, in the city, state.’ ... I thought there was a void that needed to be filled. Payton is going to be alright.”

Senn chose to become a little like a magnet school but still focus on neighborhood students — a strategy that lots of CPS schools are trying. But Lofton says the biggest hurdle to changing Senn’s reputation has nothing to do with academics.

“The first day I got here, I took the Red Line,” Lofton recalls. “I, myself, could barely get through the station to get myself to school. There were a lot of my kids there that were just loitering because, ‘Hey! We don’t go to school on time here.’”

Now, she and the other administrators start every morning at the Thorndale Red Line stop, shuffling students along and calling the cops on anyone else who, as she says, had no business being there.

Senn is not alone: Schools across the city worry about safety, sometimes even before academics. It’s a big departure from past decades.Today, we expect schools to do more than we ever have. Making the local train stop safe? Since when is that in the job description of a principal or teacher? If Lofton and Senn staff want their students to be prepared for college and careers, they don’t really have a choice not to.

The latest trends tempt me to say that the time we’re looking for, when CPS schools were good ... is right now. The district’s serving more students than ever and it’s still making incremental progress, despite the noise and dysfunction that sometimes overshadow much of it. (As an education reporter, I know I share the blame for that.)

But I'm not convinced this is the golden era; there’s a lot of work to be done and that bad stuff I report on? It does really happen.

So, even if there was never a “golden age” and even if the idea itself is impossible, I think we have to keep asking questions, looking at what works and what doesn’t and never stop highlighting those who are not being served.

Becky Vevea is a producer and reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.

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