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One mother in West Pullman on Chicago’s South Side sends her daughter to a charter school even though there are two neighborhood schools down the street.
Up in Albany Park, a mother is for the first time confident in her daughter’s neighborhood school after two decades of sending her older children to magnet and test-in programs.
A high school student attends one of the district’s most coveted high schools — but wants the city to undo the system she used to get there.
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There’s a lot that goes into how families choose a school in Chicago.
Last week, the city’s school board made waves by announcing they want to move away from that system of choice and build up neighborhood schools, especially in areas that have lacked investment from the city. The board passed a resolution last week stating its intent, but does not call to close any schools or change specific admissions policies.
Originally established to help desegregate schools, the system has recently earned a reputation for stressing out students, who are competing for seats at a limited number of sought-after schools, many of which are segregated by race and income.
Despite that, students have increasingly chosen schools they’re not zoned for. Last school year, 56% of students attended their zoned neighborhood school, or roughly 20 percentage points fewer than in the 2002-03 school year. A quarter of students attended their zoned high school last year, compared to 46% 20 years ago.
The district also won a federal grant in October that they will use to collect community feedback on how they can make neighborhood schools more attractive. In the grant application, Chicago Public Schools said its goal was to reduce the percentage of families attending school outside of their regions by 3%. The district did not answer questions to clarify their definition of region or why 3% was their goal.
How much the district will try to change the city’s school choice system will depend on feedback from the community, board members said. Already, a mix of reactions have emerged. Some community groups praised the board’s support of neighborhood schools. But former CPS CEO Janice Jackson wrote in an op-ed to the Chicago Sun-Times that moving away from school choice would ultimately hurt Black and Hispanic children.
“Trying to do anything in a district that large is going to take a long time if you’re going to do it right,” said Jack Schneider, a professor at University of Massachusetts at Amherst who studies education policy. “It’s going to turn quite slowly and particularly so if your effort is rooted in engaging communities and really listening to them and trying to respond to what you’re hearing.”
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Chalkbeat asked readers for their thoughts on school choice and got nearly 80 responses from families across the city about how they’ve navigated the system. We spoke to some of those families to understand how — and why — they chose their schools.
Preschool sells mom of four on neighborhood school
About 20 years ago, when Tiffany Harvey was deciding where to send her firstborn to school, she kept hearing that aside from some gifted and magnet programs, Chicago’s schools were “terrible.”
Harvey applied to magnet schools and had her son tested for gifted programs. She also toured a kindergarten classroom at the neighborhood school, Haugan Elementary, a couple blocks away from their Albany Park home. But at the time, Haugan didn’t have before- or after-care programs to accommodate her work schedule, while magnet and gifted programs came with busing. And Haugan’s test scores seemed low to her, she said.
“I honestly felt like I was a bad parent if I didn’t explore all the options and find the best option,” she said.
Over the next two decades, Harvey would send her first three children to magnet, gifted and selective enrollment schools outside their neighborhood.
A few years ago, that changed.
In search of preschool for her fourth child, Harvey applied for the district’s full-day pre-K program and saw that Haugan had seats. She didn’t want to pay for preschool again, and after so many years in Albany Park, she wanted to invest in her neighborhood school as someone who was better-off than some of her neighbors. Her daughter got a seat at Haugan, where 89% of students come from low-income families.
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Some research shows public pre-K programs can “attract a more integrated group of families” to schools, while some districts notice families flee after preschool, said Halley Potter, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, who has studied school segregation.
Harvey, who had low expectations, found Haugan was “phenomenal,” she said. Her daughter’s teacher was creative and kind. There was a good combination of play-based learning and introduction to academics. Her daughter was meeting kids from all kinds of families. The next year, she enrolled her daughter in a nearby lottery dual-language program, but they missed Haugan. Her daughter returned for second grade and is now in fourth grade.
“We never looked back,” Harvey said.
Harvey supports families having the ability to choose a school for their child. However, she wishes more parents would realize that schools can’t be measured by test scores alone, and more-advantaged children, like hers, can flourish alongside peers who are different from them. It’s also easier for parents to get involved at schools that are nearby, she said.
As district leaders consider how to invigorate neighborhood schools, they should add more services, such as pre-K programs or after care, as ways to draw in more families, she said.
“I don’t know what the right balance is,” Harvey said. “I do want our neighborhood schools to be celebrated and promoted and have the resources they need, where parents don’t feel like they have to drive across town to find a better option.”
A mom who chose a charter school
Charity Parker lives a couple of blocks away from two neighborhood schools in West Pullman. But her daughter, Aikira, attends a Chicago International Charter Schools, or CICS, campus that’s a roughly 15-minute walk from their home.
Parker, who attended Catholic and charter schools growing up in Chicago, said the neighborhood schools close to her — Curtis and Haley — are “poorly funded” and don’t have good test scores. At both neighborhood schools and Aikira’s charter school, more than 90% of students are from low-income families. But CICS is designated as “commendable” by the state, the second- highest designation out of five. Haley and Curtis have lower designations.
Aikira is learning more advanced topics than other neighborhood kids Parker knows, she said. She placed fifth in the school’s science fair for a solar panel project, Parker noted.
“An 8-year-old doing engineering work — I’m not getting that at my local CPS school,” she said.
Another selling point for Parker, who is Black, is that about one-third of Aikira’s peers are Hispanic, so she’s exposed “to another culture besides her own.” At Curtis and Haley, more than 90% of students are Black, which is common in Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods.
Parker said all parents should have the right to choose where their children go to school, and the district should never mandate attending neighborhood schools. While Parker loves some things about CICS, she has some issues with the school.
Aikira “loved” kindergarten at CICS, but the next year, Parker had some disagreements with Aikira’s first -grade teacher over coursework. This year, Parker has some concerns about behavior issues in Aikira’s classroom and has considered transferring her out.
But other charters are far away, and she doesn’t have a car. Private school is too expensive.
So, she’ll stay at CICS, she said.
“I’ll admit there are some things about my daughter’s school that rub me the wrong way, but the education is awesome,” Parker said.
Dad sought out selective schools for his son
Since kindergarten, Clyde Smith’s son, Kadin, has exclusively attended selective public schools located 5 to 6 miles south of their Bronzeville home.
Kadin tested into McDade Classical School, a selective enrollment elementary school in Chatham. Then, he tested again in sixth grade and got a seat at an accelerated middle school program located inside Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a selective enrollment high school in West Englewood. Kadin, 16, is now a sophomore at Lindblom.
The stressful nature of admissions never felt “unhealthy,” Smith said. His son has always been surrounded by peers who aimed for similar programs, so he was used to the competition.
“It’s always been in the air,” Smith said. “It’s almost like asking a fish, ‘How’s the water?’”
A simpler option might have been to attend his neighborhood school where he’s guaranteed a seat: Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts. District officials closed Dyett in 2015, but the school was revived in 2016 after protests and a hunger strike that Mayor Brandon Johnson participated in as an activist.
The district hosted a press conference in October at Dyett about the school’s rising graduation rates, and officials noted that the school’s 86% graduation rate had surpassed the citywide average.
Smith said he “understood the activism” that brought back Dyett, but it wasn’t enough to win him over.
“The test scores, the classes offered, the colleges they get accepted into overall, to me, doesn’t lay proof that that’s the strongest academic environment like some of these selective enrollment schools are,” Smith said.
Smith complimented the district’s desire to boost neighborhood schools, adding that segregation and “racial inequities” have left many schools under-resourced. Neighborhood schools need “strong teachers,” challenging courses, and more internship opportunities, he said.
Paul Hill, an architect of the idea that districts should create a mix of school options for parents, said the district could risk driving away parents like Smith.
“If the district is really serious about working hard on the neighborhood schools and trying to figure out what would keep people in them… that’s responsible,” said Hill, the founder of the Center for Reinventing Public Education. “On the other hand, if they really attack the schools of choice that probably will drive down enrollment.”
Smith agrees. After all, if Kadin didn’t get into a selective enrollment high school, he and his wife would have sent him to private school.
Mom is daunted by high school admissions
Laura Irons loves Logan Square and their neighborhood school, where her 7-year-old daughter is in first grade. But the thought of choosing a high school is so daunting, the family is considering leaving Chicago by the time their daughter finishes eighth grade.
Irons’ daughter passed up a seat at a magnet school to attend her zoned school, Brentano Math and Science Academy, because the family liked walking to school and didn’t want their daughter to lose friends.
“Being nearby the school, I think, has tremendous social-emotional benefits,” Irons said.
For the future, her family would consider the neighborhood high school. But other parents tell Irons it’s dangerous, with lots of fights and nearby shootings. Irons doesn’t know whether to believe them.
Irons worries about the impact of the competitive application process on her daughter. Through friends and community Facebook groups, Irons hears about kids being “so tremendously stressed out” by the application process. She hates that some schools are considered good or bad without any clarity about why.
“I don’t like [the idea of] making such a big decision at such a young age,” Irons said. “It feels like the college process, which is hard already in itself.”
Even though Irons and her husband love city life, they’re leaning toward leaving unless there is more clarity and transparency around how the choice system works, she said. And she doesn’t know where to find accurate information.
“I do value choice in certain situations so I’m not anti-choice,” Irons said. “I think the system that we have, though — to sound so cliche — it’s just a broken, very opaque system. I wonder if kids would even be stressed if the parents weren’t so stressed.”
Selective enrollment student sees problems with the system
One of Tess Lacy’s earliest memories of discussing school choice was in fourth grade. Her physical education teacher told her class, “I want you to go to good high schools,” Tess recalled.
Comments like that were common throughout Tess’s elementary and middle school years. Teachers talked often about applying to sought-after high schools. Many of her friends felt they’d fail their parents if they didn’t get into those schools. While her own parents didn’t care where she went, the stress around Tess conditioned her to focus on selective enrollment schools, she said.
She took the High School Admissions Test and got into her top-ranking: Jones College Prep in the South Loop.
Now, three years later, Tess wants to see the selective enrollment system abolished.
Selective enrollment schools tend to have more resources, not just from the district, but also from families who can fundraise, sometimes millions of dollars, Tess noted.
“If you intentionally, institutionally, structurally create schools that have more resources, parents with more resources will send their kids there,” Tess said. “I feel like a lot of people are able to realize that’s not normal, but there’s a lot of people who would rather forget about the tens of thousands of students who don’t have that privilege.”
Tess doesn’t regret attending Jones, where she finally feels accepted as a transgender young woman and has made friends from all over the city. She enjoys doing technical work for the school’s drama department.
But her decision to attend Jones now feels like it was influenced by everyone around her. She regrets not ranking Edgewater’s Senn High School higher. Senn was not her zoned high school, but is a neighborhood school closer to home that has a good arts program — one of Tess’s interests.
She would encourage eighth grade students to “really, truly think about what they as a student want.”
“Now I look back, and I see how my decision was so not my own decision,” Tess said.
Correction: This story orignally stated that McDade Classical School was a gifted program. McDade is another type of selective enrollment elementary school in Chicago.
Reema Amin is a reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Reema at email@example.com.