Who Will We Listen To When CPS Moves to Close More Schools?

In two weeks, nearly 27,000 Chicago freshmen will walk into their new CPS high schools for the first time.  When I taught at South Shore Community Academy, freshmen were my favorite and the first day was always memorable.  Freshmen have this uncanny blend of confidence and caution – simultaneously excited about what the future holds and uncertain about what is going on around them.  It’s an electric moment for students and teachers.  So much is possible.

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South Shore Community Academy “North Building”

But this year, CPS has made a significant change to how freshmen will arrive at that first day.  A new system named “GoCPS” was instituted in 2017 to match 8thgraders to high schools.  In short, GoCPS required all students to apply to high school, giving families the ability to select up to ten high schools to prioritize as their preferred choice.  The high schools would then review students’ applications and decide which to offer admission.  An algorithm designed by the software company SchoolMint would then match students to an offer from a high school, ideally one of their top ranked selections.

CPS’ goal with GoCPS was to streamline a system that was roundly criticized for being confusing, overly-complicated, and weighted towards those who knew how to navigate the bureaucracy.  The process was stressful to many families, so much so that it high school admission were often referred to as “The Hunger Games.” The results were also deeply inequitable, creating a small number of schools with an excess of students and resources while others struggled to provide the basics.

To an extent, GoCPS has simplified the high school admissions process, but it’s not at all clear that it has helped the district address the fundamental issue of providing an excellent education to all students.  The pressing question facing Janice Jackson, CPS CEO, is how to leverage GoCPS’ incremental improvement into real progress towards educational equity.

Jackson made this connection when speaking to WBEZ about the new system, saying, “We also have to make tough decisions in places where there are enough opportunities for students to be successful and parents have basically voted with their feet…The value of putting out this data is that it allows us to have a conversation with the community around a single source of truth.” By “voting with their feet,” meaning parents selecting which high schools students will attend or not attend, Jackson argues that we now have data about which schools are most desirable and a “single source of truth” to discuss what to do about undesirable high schools.

I want to pause to consider the phrase, “single source of truth.”  When a public official in powerful office asserts something to be the truth, we need to interrogate why.  What the GoCPS data tells us is which high schools are preferred among incoming-freshmen given the choice available to them.  It doesn’t tell how happy parents are with the district as a whole or how effective CPS high schools are.

Indeed, the first thing that pops out of the GoCPS data is a reaffirmation of something already widely known: there is fierce desire to attend the top selective enrollment high schools.  By dividing the number of offers each of these schools made by the number of students who ranked that school as 1st, 2nd, or 3rdchoice, we get a rough sense of acceptance rates:

  • Jones College Prep – 5.4%
  • Whitney Young – 6%
  • Walter Payton – 6.6%
  • Northside College Prep – 8.1%
  • Gwendolyn Brooks – 10.2%
  • Lindblom Math & Science – 13.5%
  • Lane Tech – 15.9%

Historically, these selective enrollment high schools over-represent white studentsand students from middle- and upper-income families relative to the district.  They also tend to under-enroll students with IEPs and English Learners.  As some of the highest performing schools in the state of Illinois, they play a significant role in perpetuating inequity by providing more and better opportunities to a disproportionately white and wealthy slice of Chicago.

This is the problem that Beatriz De Leon, executive director of Generation All, pinpoints when she asks if the GoCPS system might actually end up further stratifying our high schools.  She told the Tribune, “I think what this shows is these more vulnerable students, first of all, are choosing general education programs more, and they’re choosing and ending up matched to them more.  Does that mean that we are clustering these students in schools even more so than before?”This is a real possibility that requires close scrutiny because, despite best efforts to use algorithms in public policy to promote consistency and fairness, the results can lead to greater disparities and discrimination.

I suspect, though, that the “tough decisions” Jackson has in mind doesn’t refer to finding ways to make the level of resources available at selective enrollments available to all.  No, she is calling on the recent history of CPS school closings and foreshadowing more to come. As analyzed by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the GoCPS data reveal an excess of approximately 13,000 seats for high school freshmen.  That’s about 40% extra capacity for an incoming class of 27,000. This oversupply is unsustainable. It is at once extremely expensive and directly limiting to those schools with many empty desks.

Map of the CPS regions used for enrollment analysis

As a new confidential report commissioned by CPS clearly shows, these extra seats are heavily clustered in the African American neighborhoods of the South and West Sides.  In this blinkered rendering of the facts, many see echoes of the 2013 mass school closure when CPS shuttered 50 schools despite fierce protests from the Black communities where the vast majority of these schools were located.  The closures were framed as a clear imperative based on enrollment and utilization statistics – simply, the district could not afford to keep open schools with small student bodies. But as Eve Ewing argues, the closings “were the culmination of several generations of racist policy stacked on racist policy, each one disregarding, controlling, and displacing black children and families in new ways layered upon the callousness of the last.” And as so many of the protesters warned, the closures did not bring educational benefits to the children affected.

The same dynamic played out again this past year when CPS proposed to build a new high school in Englewood to replace four high schools that were under-enrolled and in poor condition. At public hearings, Englewood communities members turned out in large numbersto tell their neighborhood’s history and their personal stories as evidence that these schools should not be closed, but rather, given new investments of resources and support.  In February, the CPS Board voted to immediately close one of the high schools and phase out the other three while a new Englewood high school is built.

So in Jackson’s call to use the GoCPS data as a “single source of truth” in discussion with communities, I see the past beginning to replay itself.  One set of data about which high schools some families prefer is being preemptively positioned as the “truth” on par with, if not more true, than CPS’ long history of racism and the urgent voices of community members who know their neighborhoods best. This isn’t an issue of semantics, but instead, a question of who we will truly listen to and what kinds of evidence will we be persuaded by when it comes time to reckon with our district’s fundamental problems.

Image result for cps board of education

It is these fundamental problems that demand our attention more so than any tinkering towards minor improvements.  When CPS initiated GoCPS, it was indicating that it thinks the current high school system is basically adequate and that it primarily requires greater facilitation of parent choice to help identify and address issues. This ignores the basic, foundational problems of our inequitable system.  What we need is a broad public forum on difficult questions at CPS’ core: What kind of school system do we want for Chicago? How can we create an equitable, anti-racist system? How can we sustainably resource such a system? How will we ultimately define its success?

[This post was originally written in August 2018. CPS has since made the Area Regional Analysis publicly available and is hosting a series of public meetings about it.]

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