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Equity & Diversity

The Battle Over Who Gets Into Elite Public High Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — May 07, 2019 | Corrected: May 09, 2019 8 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the division of seats in Chicago’s first assignment plan for selective high schools. The original plan assigned 40 percent of the seats to top-scoring students from across the school district, and divided the remaining 60 percent equally among the top-scoring students from each socioeconomic tier.

As politicians and parents fight about how to bring more Latino and African-American students into New York City’s elite public high schools, another big urban district has gotten closer to an answer, building far more diversity into its selective-admission high schools.

In Chicago, the country’s third-largest school district, 47 percent of the K-12 students are Latino and 37 percent are African-American. In the hallways of its 11 most elite high schools, 34 percent are Latino and 29 percent are black.

Those coveted classrooms aren’t exactly a racial mirror-image of Chicago’s school population. But they come closer than those in the most-sought-after high schools of the country’s biggest school district.

In New York, black and Latino students represent hefty double-digit slices of the school population, but have only a slim single-digit presence in its eight most prestigious high schools.

A snapshot of New York schools in 2017-18, the most recent audited figures available, shows a student population that’s 41 percent Latino and 26 percent African-American. But in its selective-admissions high schools, only 6 percent were Latino and 4 percent were black. Just seven black students were offered spots in next fall’s freshman class of nearly 900 students at Stuyvesant High School.

Those big gaps in New York have prompted yet another round of feverish debate in a years-long struggle to diversify its most famous high schools.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s bid to dump the single test that governs admission has been met with furious opposition by some parents and alumni, who argue that basing admissions on other criteria would water down those schools’ rigor and ruin their reputations. Activists, city leaders, and state lawmakers are stalemated in their battle about how to move forward.

“The issue of diversity at selective high schools is a struggle everywhere. I don’t know of a place where highly selective schools wonderfully mirror the general population,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who’s a leading proponent of using socioeconomic criteria to diversify schools, and helped Chicago craft its plan.

“The underlying problem is that selective high schools measure student achievement, and achievement is a reflection of opportunity,” he said. “Talent is distributed equally, but opportunity is not.”

Multiple Admissions Factors

Like New York, Chicago came under attack when it began considering a new admissions system in 2009 to admit students to its specialized high schools. It had been using racial quotas to desegregate its schools under a 29-year-old federal consent decree.

Worried that an admissions change at the elite high schools would net fewer seats for their children, black and Latino parents descended on school board meetings, chanting “educate or die.” As in New York, Asian and white teenagers were—and still are—overrepresented in Chicago’s selective-admissions high schools.

Chicago had to design a new way to assign students to schools because the federal court had ended its oversight. And any new plan would also have to abide by a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred the use of race in assigning individual students to schools.

With that legal restriction, some districts had begun to venture onto new turf to create more-equitable assignment plans: They were using poverty and other indicators of disadvantage as a proxy—although an imperfect proxy—for race. Chicago decided to try that approach.

Rochelle Borden, 17, works in the office of Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago, one of the city's 11 selective admissions high schools. To maintain diversity, Chicago uses a mix of factors to select students for its elite schools.

Katie Ellis, who is now the deputy chief of staff to the Chicago Board of Education but played a leading role in designing Chicago’s plan when she was a top official for student-assignment, said the district conducted many analyses in its search for criteria that would maintain the diversity in its selective programs that racial quotas produced under the court’s consent decree.

It grouped the city’s census tracts into four “tiers,” and ranked each tier by five characteristics that influence children’s chances of success in school: household income, parental educational attainment, the share of home ownership and single-parent households, and language spoken at home. The most disadvantaged students were in Tier 1, and the most fortunate in Tier 4.

Unlike New York’s system, which considers only one thing—an exam score—in its selective-admissions high schools, Chicago bases students’ admission on a composite score derived from four things: standardized tests and course grades from 7th grade, an 8th grade admissions test, and, in most cases, the city tier where students live.

In the first version of its new plan, in 2010-11, Chicago filled 40 percent of the seats in those elite programs with the top-scoring students from across the district and divided the remaining 60 percent equally among the top-scoring students from each socioeconomic tier.

The results sparked a new round of community opposition. The city tweaked the plan, setting aside 25 seats in some of those high schools for students from low-performing K-8 schools.

It would revise the plan further, too, reducing from 40 percent to 30 percent the share of seats given to the city’s top scorers without regard to socioeconomic factors, and adding neighborhood school performance to the criteria in each tier.


Today, 70 percent of the seats in selective-admission high schools go to students chosen equally from the four socioeconomic tiers.

Even under the court’s consent decree, Chicago’s admissions high schools never perfectly mirrored the city’s racial makeup, Ellis said. A district must grapple with challenges to that goal any time it chooses selective criteria to assign students to schools, she said.

And challenges persist. The African-American presence in Chicago’s selective high schools has declined by 3.5 percentage points since the consent decree was lifted in 2009. The picture is worse in some schools: At two of the most selective Chicago high schools, only 8 percent of the students are black.

Latino students are still underrepresented at many of the schools, but overall, their presence in those hallways has risen more than 5 percentage points in the last decade, as Latinos surpassed African-Americans to become the district’s largest student minority group.

Questions About Equity

Studies of Chicago’s high school assignment plan have raised questions about its equity. One, by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, found “no doubt” that its system still favors “the most advantaged” students. Wealthier students seek out selective high schools far more often than lower-income, black, and Latino students, who often go to charter or neighborhood schools, it said.

Joyce Kenner sees plenty of emails from those better-positioned parents. She’s been sitting in the principal’s seat for 24 years at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, one of Chicago’s most coveted.

Kenner said the parents who most often “express concerns” that their children weren’t admitted are white and well-off. Because of the city’s tier system, their children “might have gotten in if they lived in a different section of the city,” she said.

“But nobody’s going to bully me,” Kenner said. “That’s why I’ve been in this seat so long.”

Students work in a sculpture class at Chicago's Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, one of the city's most sought-after high schools.

Pierre Clark is a consultant for The Black Star Project, an activist group that opposed the new admissions criteria in 2009. Now he has a front-row seat, since his 7th grade daughter is going through it. He sees that some parents know more about the selection process, and can afford tutors to boost their children’s test scores and grades.

“If you talk to parents, you’ll find inequities in their knowledge about the system, their access to resources, and their students’ preparation,” he said. “It means that not all students have the same chances. And to put it delicately, there is a racial component to that.”

Because it opens access to students from neighborhoods with lower-performing schools, Chicago’s tier system has a key challenge: supporting students who come in with lower levels of achievement. District data show that Tier 1 students are accepted with significantly lower composite scores than their peers who are judged only on academic criteria.

Each school in Chicago has a team to design interventions for struggling students, said LaTanya McDade, the district’s chief education officer.

And principals can add supports to that mix. Kenner, for instance, has added math and writing centers during the day and tutoring after school. This fall, she’s starting a red-flag system that will alert administrators to any student who has multiple course failures.

The city is still working to improve diversity at its selective high schools, too. McDade said it’s expanded outreach to parents and counselors to build awareness of the programs and encourage students to check their eligibility.

In the K-8 grades, the district is investing in gifted and magnet programs and working to ensure that curricula are uniformly rigorous districtwide to “make sure we’re actually preparing students to gain access” to selective high schools, McDade said.

Chicago has also expanded the number of seats available in its selective high school programs. According to district figures, it has added 5,189 seats to the 11,438 its programs had a decade ago—a 45 percent expansion since the consent decree was lifted.

The most recent three schools it added were in the southern and western parts of the city, which have the highest concentrations of African-American families, McDade said.

Hovering over the project to diversify Chicago’s top schools, however, is a bigger question: Are admissions-only high schools the right thing to focus on?

An emerging body of research casts doubt on their power to improve their students’ achievement, high school graduation rates, or college enrollment. The theory is that those schools don’t transform students; rather, they choose motivated, accomplished students who’d do well anywhere. But students do consistently report a better school climate on selective campuses.

“So the question is, should we be investing money and effort in improving these types of schools, or investing in improving the climate in all schools?” said Lisa Barrow, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago who studied the city’s selective-high school system.

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2019 edition of Education Week as The Battle Over Who Gets Into Elite Public Schools


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