Great Schools, Not “Neighborhood” Schools Make the Difference for At-Risk Youth

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Generation All, a newly formed education advocacy group released a report last week to bring attention to what they believe is a need in the city of Chicago to reinvest in “neighborhood high schools” (attendance boundary schools with no admittance requirements or enrollment forms).  The underlying concept is that the proliferation of schools of choice (selective enrollment, magnets, charters etc.) has negatively impacted the most vulnerable students by isolating them in these “neighborhood schools” with reduced resources as student-based funding allows dollars to follow families to the schools of their choice.  But, I think the report misses some major points that might have significantly impacted some of the key recommendations.

A number of times in the report, I read some version of the claim that since 2005 Chicago Public Schools has quickly expanded the number of “choice” schools and that this expansion has created a culture of choice driving families with higher social capital and intellectual wherewithal out of “neighborhood high schools”.  Because schools of choice have enrollment requirements – some as rigorous as the academic requirements of the selective enrollment schools and some as simple as the basic enrollment forms at charter schools – the report claims that the city has sorted families and students along socio-economic lines, leaving the most vulnerable students in neighborhood schools without resources.

The report does admit, however, that the expansion of school choice in Chicago has coincided with (if not contributed to) increased high school graduation rates and other improved student outcomes across the city.  With this admission, it is hard for me to square with the recommendation to stop creating high quality schools in Chicago.

The thought is that we’re leaving the vulnerable behind, but does Generation All really think that the most vulnerable students and families were any better off in 2005 when the graduation rate was under 50% in Chicago.  I don’t think so.  I’d suggest that we need to lean into this success and keep finding ways to offer high quality school options to students and families who need them most.

I also think that the Generation All report sells parents across Chicago short.  There is an underlying assumption in the report that parents facing significant poverty lack the right combination of concern for their students and logistical sophistication to do something like complete an enrollment form for a charter school or register their kid to sit for the selective enrollment exam.  But, when you dig a little bit deeper into the numbers, you might see that Chicago families are savvier than a lot of folks give them credit for.  The reality of CPS enrollment patterns is that parents are not fleeing “neighborhood schools”, but rather families are fleeing schools that they don’t believe will offer their children the best education possible.  In Chicago, 70% of the students zoned to a Level 1+ neighborhood school attend that neighborhood school while only 17% of students zoned to a Level 3 neighborhood school attend that neighborhood school.

Smart, right?

In my opinion, several of the recommendations and assertions in the report have merit.  All schools need to learn to be better partners with the communities they serve. We need to move to a single enrollment system and take even more steps to support parents in finding the best school for their children.  But, let’s not pine for the good old days of 2005 as if we used to take care of the most vulnerable students in Chicago back then.  We have a lot better chance of getting these students the school environment they deserve when the number of quality options abounds.

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Chris Butler

Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate.

Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago.

Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.

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