On the surface, Chicago’s Walter Payton College Prep High School seems like it couldn’t be better. It is regularly listed as the best school in the city and the state, and one of the top 10 in the nation.
The nearly 20-year-old school is in a pristine building on the Near North Side and offers a plethora of technology and a long list of clubs and classes. It gets extra school district money for being a selective enrollment test-in school, and the parents of students raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for extras.
But inside, it has been grappling with a precipitous decrease in black students that has coincided with a series of disturbing racial incidents, from black students being called the N-word to bananas being thrown at them in the cafeteria.
This year, only 11% of Payton’s student population is black. That’s down from 25% just 10 years ago, just before a court order to integrate the city’s test-in and magnet schools ended.
Payton is not alone. Four of Chicago’s top five selective enrollment schools — among the only integrated high schools in the city — have seen decreases in their black student population, and while the number of Latino students in these schools has increased, they are still under-represented in these schools.
And conflicts have come up at a number of these schools. Across the country, this has also become an issue. In a 2016 Atlantic article, “Being Black at America’s Elite Public High Schools,” students of color, including one from Payton, talk about how they feel isolated and say the administration fails to respond in a way that protects and includes them.
At Payton, a teacher thought the situation was so bad that last year she wrote an open letter that she sent to all faculty and blind-copied students. In it, she writes some students “weaponize the oppression of racism, consistently and flagrantly waving their anti-blackness like a battle flag, and we are shocked or hurt or indifferent or angry until the present offense fades enough for us to pretend that we are a community that practices inclusivity and believes in equity.”
She said black students are consistently called the N-word, both on social media and in person. And, among other incidents, students have posted videos of themselves throwing bananas at black students in the cafeteria and of themselves repeatedly calling a black child the N-word at school. She said students have come to her multiple times to tell her they've been called the N-word.
She said one black senior told her that “Payton does not take enough risks to protect black students.”
Principal Tim Devine said incidents are bound to occur in any school where students from across the city with different experiences are brought together. He said many of them have grown up in segregated parts of town and don’t have as much experience interacting with students of different races.
“Then, they come freshman year into this magic place that is Payton,” he said. Devine said a program for incoming freshmen the summer before they start spends time exploring identity and values. He said these discussions continue in homeroom and in classes. He also has focused on hiring teachers of color and those that can prove they know how to deal with these difficult issues.
Devine is upfront that incidents have taken place and said that he addresses them “to the fullest extent” under the student code of conduct. “Oftentimes there is discipline, significant discipline, but there is also significant restorative practice,” he said, citing the practice of bringing together a student who has harmed another to find a way to repair the damage caused.
But Devine notes the school district doesn’t provide funding for restorative justice programs. He also says the student code of conduct falls short in giving principals permission to issue harsh punishment when students make racist comments.
The mother of a current Payton sophomore said her daughter’s first reaction to the school was to ask, “Where are all the black kids?” The mother, though, said it felt to her like it was “the real world. It is not reflective of Chicago, but it is reflective of the broader population.”
She said the administration made parents aware of at least two racial incidents and it seemed from the correspondence that the issues were being addressed. She said her daughter has adjusted well to the school, is quiet and wasn’t too bothered by the incidents.
“I feel like the administration takes it seriously,” she said. “They don’t play around. They don’t let it fester.”
But these issues are not new to Payton. Kopano Muhammad found the school such a hostile environment that she wound up transferring after her sophomore year in the summer of 2016.
At first, though, Muhammad said she was impressed, overwhelmed even, with how clean the building was, the technology available and the freedom the students had. She came to Payton from the accelerated seventh and eighth grade program at Kenwood Academy, where she said students felt much more policed. She also was shocked that every day, baked into the school day, students at Payton get to go to clubs, whether it be the gardening or the debate club.
As a freshman, she said she tried to fit in and make friends. She said small actions by her classmates made her feel like she wasn’t as accepted as she thought she was.
Then, sophomore year, she got into an argument on Facebook with some white male students at school. She said they were making lewd, racist comments. When she tried to challenge their notions of race and privilege, they attacked her and other black students even more.
Instead of getting in trouble, Muhammad said the administration called her and the six or so young men in the Facebook conversation and made them talk about the issues.
“No one was reprimanded, and after that, the school was monitoring my social media,” she said. She said she felt like the young men just got a “slap on the wrist, but no real punishments and nothing that would go on their record.”
“A lot of them go to Ivy [League schools] and a lot of them continue their life being oppressive and not caring,” she said.
After that, Muhammad said she was getting bullied and it led to her grades dropping. Eventually, her mother, who had been ecstatic when she got into Payton, helped her transfer to Whitney Young High School, another selective enrollment school. She said she felt relieved to be out of there.
Erica Bauer, Payton’s director of student engagement, said she had a conversation with Muhammad after she left, and the school is trying to learn from her feedback. One example is students who get in trouble for doing something racially offensive don’t just go back into classes without an acknowledgement by their teachers. Teachers are told to address the issue and let classmates talk about how they feel about the incident.
Payton then and now
Payton was not always as elite and white as it is now. When it first opened in 2000, it was much more reflective of the city, divided in three parts between white, black and Latino students. Asian students were about 7% of the student body.
Sam Dyson was hired straight from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to be one of the founding teachers at the school. He remembers it being a big deal that the school was named for beloved Chicago football legend Walter Payton, a figure who brought the city together.
“Reflecting the value and life and reverence folks had for Walter Payton but also reflecting the possibility of something new and different,” he said.
Dyson notes that, at the time, the Near North Side neighborhood near Payton wasn’t as upscale as it is now. Back then, the Cabrini Green public housing projects were still standing nearby and some students who lived there got into Payton.
And because Payton didn’t have a reputation yet, the parents who sent their children felt they were taking a bit of a risk.
The school attracted “families who wanted a different type of experience, and a big part of that was that we were creating a city out of a community, that there was going to be diversity as a core value,” he said.
The school was already changing when Dyson left a decade ago to take on a district-wide role.
Just about that time, another big change took place. In September 2009, a federal judge lifted a court order that required Chicago Public Schools to integrate as many schools as possible, considering the district’s small population of white students. Under that court order, the school district created magnet and selective enrollment high schools, like Payton, and used racial quotas in the admissions process.
After the court order was vacated, the school system started using socioeconomic status as determined by a student’s zip code to try to maintain some racial and income diversity.
Devine said the changing of the admissions policy alone is not the only reason that the black student population has decreased. He said it is also due to the opening of selective enrollment high schools on the South and West sides, such as Westinghouse and Lindblom, that families see as good options without the travel.
Also, it has gotten very hard to get into Payton. Students can earn up to 900 points based on grades, test scores and a selective enrollment exam. Students living in the highest income areas need almost a perfect 900 to get in, but even students living in low-income areas can only miss about 50 points and expect to get it. The first 30% of seats go to students on merit alone. Payton is typically the hardest or one of the hardest of the 11 selective enrollment schools to get into.
Devine blames some elementary schools for not preparing students well enough to ace the test used to get into the top schools. He said they especially need to do better exposing students to algebra.
Given the high bar to get in, Bauer said, recruiting students isn’t all that fruitful.
“We can go across the street to Salazar [Elementary] and you can recruit and you can have students come across the street,” she said. “At the end of the day, there may be two students that can say yes to Payton based on how they perform on a test that none of us have any connection to.”
Devine said he is disheartened by the decrease of black students because he thinks his high school offers a great education that has raised the bar for the entire school district.
“I would like to see a population of students who are getting a world-class education, he said. “And that student population should be highly representative of our city.”