More whites and fewer blacks are getting into Chicagos elite public high schools, including Payton College Prep.
  • Chris Sweda/Sun-Times
  • More whites and fewer blacks are getting into Chicago’s elite public high schools, including Payton College Prep.

When the City Council holds hearings on Chicago’s selective enrollment high schools this summer, I hope aldermen consider the larger questions about racial and economic segregation as well as the particular ones that prompted their interest in the subject.

Aldermen Pat Dowell (Third) and Will Burns (Fourth) called for the hearings in late April after a Sun-Times report showed declines in the number of black students and increases in the number of white students since 2009 at the city’s top four selective enrollment high schools.

Students who graduate from those four schools—Payton, Jones, Northside, and Whitney Young—are “pretty much guaranteed a seat at a good college anywhere in this country,” Dowell told the Sun-Times . “We need to make sure our children, African-American children, have access to that pipeline.” The formula governing admission to the selective high schools might need to be modified, she said.

Burns, who like Dowell is African-American, grew up near Cleveland and attended an elite public school in seventh and eighth grade. That school made it possible for him to attend a private high school, which in turn helped him get into the University of Chicago, he told me Friday. “There are a lot of talented black kids out there, and if they’re given an opportunity, they’ll shine,” he said.

Equal access to the “pipeline” is a worthy concern. But the selective enrollment schools are intended to do more than help high achievers. They’re supposed to be part of a larger strategy aimed at reducing the socioeconomic and racial isolation that has beset the Chicago Public Schools for decades. That strategy—a near total failure for more than 30 years—is what most desperately needs a hearing.

The selective enrollment schools developed out of a magnet school program that began as part of a 1980 consent decree. The U.S. Department of Justice had sued the school board, alleging it had used boundaries and other means to maintain a segregated system that provided black children with inferior schools. The consent decree called for “the establishment of the greatest practicable number of stably desegregated schools, considering all circumstances in Chicago.”

By 1980, however, the circumstances in Chicago were that not many white kids attended the public schools: they made up just 18 percent of the citywide enrollment. So the greatest practicable number of stably desegregated schools was only a handful. These few were created through the magnet school program. As in other urban districts throughout the nation, Chicago’s magnets were designed to attract students of different races and ethnicities to integrated schools, and also to persuade parents of means to choose a city school instead of sending their children to private schools or moving to the suburbs. (Selective enrollment schools are magnet schools for high achievers.)

To ensure that the magnets weren’t racially segregated, they were required to be 15 to 35 percent white. Soon the magnets were the city’s best schools, with intense competition for admission. So the result of the consent decree was ironic: it was supposed to mainly help rectify the harm done to minority children by the district’s segregated system, but its main achievement was a set of prized schools to which white students got disproportionate access. By 1988, white children were only 13.5 percent of all CPS students, but they were 27 percent of the students in the magnets.

Many black and Hispanic leaders have decried this for years. “Our damn desegregation plan was a big mistake,” school board vice president William Farrow, an African-American, told me in 1988. “What we did was set up a lot of special little programs to keep white flight down—and in the process, we robbed the rest of the system.”

Even with the “special little programs,” the proportion of white students citywide kept declining; today the enrollment is only 9 percent white. And access for white students to the elite selective enrollment high schools has become even more disproportionate: the combined enrollment of Payton, Jones, Northside, and Young is now about 33 percent white.

In 2007 a U.S. Supreme Court ruling greatly restricted the use of racial classifications by school districts in desegregation efforts, and two years later a federal judge here lifted the consent decree. CPS vowed to continue to address segregation, although it was now formally addressing socioeconomic rather than racial segregation. In 2009, the district switched to a formula that it hoped would not only produce socioeconomic diversity but would also maintain racial diversity in the few schools that had it. In the selective enrollment high schools, 30 percent of students are admitted based on their test scores and grades; the other 70 percent of seats go to an equal number of top students from four socioeconomic tiers.

By using a socioeconomic formula, Chicago has shown a greater commitment to racial and socioeconomic diversity in its elite schools than some other big-city districts. Seventy percent of public school students in New York are black or Hispanic, but in that city’s eight elite public high schools, which admit students based solely on test scores, only 5 percent of the students are black and 7 percent Hispanic, Richard Kahlenberg points out today in a New York Times op-ed.

Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, helped devise the socioeconomic formula Chicago uses and thinks New York should adopt a similar one. He compares New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School, where only 3 percent of seats this year were offered to black and Latino students, with Chicago’s Payton Prep, where he says 21 percent of students are black and 25 percent Latino. “Some critics worry that these numbers [in Chicago] are still inadequate in a public school system where 41 percent of students are black and 45 percent Latino,” Kahlenberg allows. “But compared with Stuyvesant, Payton is a multicultural paradise.”

The aldermen who called for the hearings worry that without changes in the admissions formula here, that paradise soon may be lost. The Sun-Times report showed the proportion of black freshmen at Payton declined from 37 percent in 2008 to 17 percent this school year.

But while tweaking the formula might get a few more high-achieving black students into the top selective high schools, it would do nothing to help the vast majority of black and Hispanic CPS students. They remain stuck in schools that face long odds because of their high-poverty enrollments. Just under 40 percent of students at Payton, Jones, Northside, and Whitney Young are from low-income families, but 85 percent of the citywide enrollment is low-income, and many CPS students are in schools whose enrollments are virtually all low-income.

The “special little programs” were supposed to reduce the citywide low-income number by keeping more students of means in CPS and attracting new ones. But despite an expanded array of boutique schools—classical schools, International Baccalaureate programs, gifted programs in elementary schools—the citywide low-income proportion has not declined; 20 years ago, it was 84 percent.

As I wrote last year (and back in 1988 as well), other urban districts have worked with suburban districts to set up regional magnet schools that have lessened both racial and socioeconomic segregation—a strategy the Chicago school board has never bothered to try.

Yes, the selective high schools do provide some African-American students with the benefits of a socioeconomically diverse education. But even before the recent declines, the number benefiting was minuscule. (Today there are more than 40,000 African-American high school students in the district; only about 1,000 of them attend one of the four elite schools; most of the rest are in hypersegregated schools.) And the advantage has only gone to top students, while average and below-average students continue to languish in high-poverty schools.

Regional magnet schools will not completely solve the district’s fundamental racial and socioeconomic problems. No single approach will. More ideas are sorely needed. The hearings on the selective enrollment schools could be an opportunity to consider such ideas. The selective schools are part of a system, and the hearings about them should focus on the problems afflicting the vast majority, not just the luckier few.