CHICAGO — Are Chicago Public Schools making the grade?
Mayor Lori Lightfoot is calling for strong schools, regardless of neighborhood or zip code. According to an analysis by CPS, that is not the case now. Some of Chicago’s worst performing schools are in low-income neighborhoods with mainly students of color. And while only 11% of CPS students are white, almost 90 percent of them go to the top-rated schools in the city.
Read the CPS analysis or select your school to see the report card.
For example, tucked away in Chicago’s Old-Town neighborhood is a quaint elementary school named Manierre. Much of the area has been gentrified. The school sits near the former Cabrini Green housing project. At first glance, this neighborhood isn’t struggling, but the school is.
According to CPS’s report card, 97% of the kids at Manierre are African-American. 93% are low-income and 46% don’t regularly show up to class.
The CPS report gives Manierre a Level 3 grade, the bottom tier.
In the South Loop at another elementary school, National Teachers Academy, 77% of the student population is African-American. About 72% are low-income and 19% don’t regularly show up to school.
It took three years, but this school turned itself around to reach the top tier, a Level 1-plus.
When asked how NTA was able to accomplish its goal, Elizabeth Greer, a parent and local school council member said, “It takes a lot of hard work and persistence to get to Level 1-plus and of course, to maintain it.”
Greer said there are many moving parts.
“It’s teaching. It’s engaging our students on a social and emotional level, making sure all of their emotional needs are being met,” she said. “And it’s also a lot of hard work bringing in the families to make sure the kids get to school on time. That they’re well fed. That they’re ready to learn. There are just a lot of full wraparound services needed to get there and to stay there.”
In her plan to improve neighborhood schools, Lightfoot points to NTA as a success story. Still at least 299 schools, roughly 45% of schools across the city, are in the bottom two tiers.
Greer doesn’t think these schools are getting enough resources.
“When you look at how resources are being distributed across the districts, the schools that have so much are doing better are getting more,” she said. “And the schools that need more are not getting what they need.”
Two months ago, CPS CEO Janice Jackson praised the progress of Chicago schools and emphasized the creation of more preschools and higher graduation rates.
“Our children show up every single day, working hard, buying into what we’re selling, to get these kinds of results,” Jackson said.
School ranking is based on a formula that considers test scores, academic growth, graduation rates, attendance, and parent/teacher surveys.
Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union gives the school rating system an F.
“I think these numbers mirror poverty,” he said. “Lots of Level 1 schools are in better off neighborhoods. Lots of schools on the other end of the scale are in worse off neighborhoods.”
Using the district’s own numbers, 89% of white students attend a Level 1 school. But, when it comes to students of color, only 45% of African-American students and 68% of Hispanic students attend a Level 1 school.
Worse yet, about 1,700 children are attending schools ranked at the very bottom, Level 3. Each of these schools has predominantly minority students.
“Right now, the problem with probation or the designation of lower rating, you lose autonomy and meaningful supports don't come to you,” Sharkey said. “You don't get a librarian in a community where people don't have books at home. You don't get a nurse every day where people are dealing with asthma. You don't have access to good primary care physicians. You don't get reading specialists to help tutor students. We don't get those things in our schools. We should.”
The report goes on to show neighborhoods in Bronzeville and the area the report refers to as the “South Lakefront” have the fewest number of Level 1 elementary schools. The South and West Side have the fewest top-level high schools.
University of Illinois-Chicago professor Elizabeth Todd-Breland authored a book examining the historical trends of racial politics in education reform.
“The fact that the problem has been entrenched for so long is not a reason not to tackle it,” she said. “Equity is different than equality. Equality says everyone should get the same amount of funds. Equity says funds should be based on need. So, I think those are fundamentally different ways of looking at the problem of funding in schools historically and today.”
According to the district, 53% of students attend schools outside of their designated neighborhood school. That’s in part a reflection of the district’s open enrollment policy. Despite that number, there are tens of thousands of available seats at the top tier schools that are currently open and available.
“If we were investing properly in our neighborhood schools, and we were trying to do a better job of getting everyone to go to their local school, I think it would make our neighborhoods stronger,” Sharkey said. “It would help us invest back in some important local institutions and it would be better for everyone involved.
The question is, what are we doing about it, and how does this as an educational tool, help us do something different?”
Another ongoing issue for CPS is declining enrollment. It’s down 11%, that’s almost 50,000 students over the last ten years. And the district expects to lose nearly another 20,000 students over the next three years.
Emily Bolton, Director of Media Communications and Strategy for CPS released a statement that said:
The district’s school rating system is based on several holistic factors to provide communities with an understanding of academic offerings and important factors like school climate, graduation rates and academic growth, with no single factor determining the quality of a school. The district will continue to gather ongoing feedback from principals and stakeholders to ensure our SQRP formula continues to be a holistic, equitable and accessible metric.