Ten years ago this week, a federal judge lifted a court order that compelled Chicago Public Schools to integrate its test-in schools by race.
Two schools on the South Side help tell the story of what’s happened since: more racial isolation. In 2009, CPS had three test-in selective enrollment schools that were racially isolated. It now has six.
“If this school was in a better neighborhood, we will have more diverse kids,” said Kadrion Isemoh, a sophomore at South Shore International College Prep, a new selective enrollment school on 75th Street that opened in 2011. It is almost exclusively black.
Chicago’s 11 elite selective test-in high schools and magnet schools opened over the last 40 years with a core mission: help create pockets of racial integration in a city known for stubborn and enduring racial segregation.
But 10 years ago, a federal judge told Chicago Public Schools it no longer had to factor in race when admitting students to these schools. The school district said it was still committed to diversity, so it turned to using socioeconomic factors, admitting a set number of students from four different socioeconomic levels.
This was designed to ensure economic diversity in these elite schools and to be a proxy for race at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court limited the use of race in school admissions.
The result? More schools that are a large majority of one race and an uptick in white students at some of the city’s top test-in schools.
Chicago’s top-performing selective enrollment schools — Payton, Whitney Young, Jones, Lane and Northside — all remain islands of racial diversity in a city where racial isolation is the norm.
But since 2009, Payton, Lane and Jones have seen their percentage of white students increase while black students declined. Most of the top schools have seen growth in Latino students, mirroring a citywide increase in the proportion of Latino students in CPS. At the same time, the proportion of black students has dropped citywide.
The three selective schools that were majority black remain the same.
And three more selective enrollment schools have opened since 2009 — and they are all either majority black or Latino.
Of the six racially isolated schools, Westinghouse and Lindblom are majority black but also have a sizable Latino population.
When CPS looks at these six majority single-race schools, it sees them offering something else: equity and access for students on Chicago’s South and West sides, where the schools are located.
“We value diversity, but we also value having high-quality programs in communities throughout the city regardless of whether those communities are in pockets that are segregated,” said LaTanya McDade, chief education officer for Chicago Public Schools.
But the stories of two of those new racially isolated test-in schools — Hancock College Prep and South Shore International College Prep — also tell the story of how Chicago’s stubborn racial segregation persists.
The idea of diversity is admirable, but not practical
Hancock College Prep on 56th Street on the Southwest Side has maintained a predominantly Hispanic student population before and after becoming a selective enrollment high school in 2015.
School officials there say diversity is important, but it’s not a primary goal.
They say Hancock’s fundamental mission is to give eligible students in the area, which has a large Latino population, a chance at a top school.
Local students deserve the same experience other students have downtown or on the North Side, said Devon Herrick, Hancock’s principal, “In some ways, that is woven into our DNA as a school,” he said, though he added he plans to work toward more racial diversity in the future. Hancock is 94% Hispanic.
Herrick said Hancock’s outreach now is tailored to schools primarily on the Southwest Side — their goal is to attract eligible students who would not otherwise have access to a selective enrollment high school nearby. Going outside that area to try to integrate the school at the expense of taking seats from high-performing students is not in their plan.
There are also practical reasons why racial integration is difficult, he said.
“This idea of diversity is something admirable or important in its own right, [but] it’s different from us looking practically at what it would mean to bring in, let’s say, more white students,” Herrick said.
Deciding who gets into Hancock is“really out of our hands,” Herrick said. Students apply and rank a school using a new online application system. Students must meet a minimum score based on test results, grades and a student’s socioeconomic status. “We don’t have any say on what students are chosen.”
White students make up the second largest demographic group in nearby elementary schools. But Herrick said it has been consistently hard to attract those students.
“Among the white families, there has been kind of a history of sending their kids to private schools or parochial schools,” he said. ”We have never sat down and said, ‘How do we kind of crack that tradition and pull more of those kids in, what we do?’ We certainly make Hancock known to those families.”
“Diversity matters to people a lot, [but] not in a good way”
The vast majority of white students in Chicago who qualify for selective enrollment schools go to the city’s top five performing test-in schools.
Overall, white students at Payton, Whitney Young, Northside, Jones and Lane make up 35% of the total student population at those schools, compared to less than 1% at the remaining six selective enrollment high schools. The other schools are mostly black, except for Hancock, which is majority Hispanic.
The majority black schools are Lindblom, Westinghouse, Brooks, King and South Shore International, though Lindblom and Westinghouse have a mix of black and Latino students.
At Byrne Elementary, also on the city’s Southwest Side near Midway Airport, 31% of students are white and 66% are Hispanic. School counselor Elizabeth Ortiz sees a pattern.
“I think diversity matters to people a lot, [but] not in a good way,” said Ortiz. “I feel like [parents] want a specific demographic for their kids to be around, so that’s why a lot of [them] … want them to go to a private school.”
The closest test-in schools to Byrne are Hancock and Lindblom. But Ortiz said some parents at Byrne have a very specific vision of where they want their child to go.
“I know that Lindblom doesn’t really fit in that vision,” she said, adding that parents there worry the West Englewood neighborhood around Lindblom isn’t safe enough.
When it comes to mostly Hispanic Hancock, Ortiz said, some white students worry about being the minority.
John F. Kennedy High School is the neighborhood high school, and it has a greater percentage of white students than Hancock.
Oritz said white students who don’t end up at Kennedy or a top selective enrollment schools go to South Side or south suburban private schools— many which are predominantly white but also include a racial mix.
Students are focused on going where their friends are going, Ortiz said.
“They are more interested in their little friend group, and they don’t care if they are Hispanic, or if they are white or if they are black,” she said.
“The schools are just a reflection of the city”
On a recent morning at South Shore International College Prep on the South Side, students talked about why teens in other parts of the city should pick their high school.
“It’s a very good school, we learn a lot, we learn about Caucasians, we don’t only learn about slavery,” said Oluwalosetemi Ajakaiye, a sophmore. “It’s an open school, we have really nice counselors you can talk to and it’s fun.”
From its start in 2011, attracting a diverse student population has been the goal at South Shore International.
“The premise behind the school was so it could reach out to an international community, which is why they added international to the name South Shore,” said Leverette Bryant, longtime president of the local school council. He said the intention was to open the school to foreign exchange students, as well as to more white, Hispanic and Asian students.
But so far it’s almost all black — 96%.
Bryant said the lack of diversity in selective enrollment schools is just a reflection of the city. Parents’ apprehension about sending their kids all the way to South Shore is tied to racism, he said, “and racism just come from the lack of knowledge in the cultures.”
But he also acknowledged the environment around the school may not always welcome people from diverse backgrounds either. “Our school is just in an area that’s not populated with people that would invite that without some type of scrutiny,” he said. “It’s not a shot at the community, but sometimes people of color tend to get a little tense.”
Bryant said his school has had to compete with diverse and well-established selective enrollment schools downtown where residents and even the school staff are used to a mix of kids.
Aside from tough competition, South Shore International faces other challenges. There is a stigma of crime associated with the neighborhood, regardless of local efforts to change that, Bryant said.
And the school is not top rated like Young or Lindblom. While it’s is in good standing academically, its test scores are below the city’s average. That might not look appealing to high-achieving students in other parts of Chicago.
If CPS is serious about diversifying South Shore, the socioeconomic factors used in admissions need to be coupled with other incentives for students and families, Bryant said. He’d like CPS to pay for busing, but it’s an idea CPS’ McDade rejected.
While South Shore continues to figure out ways to attract other students, Bryant had a message for parents in other neighborhoods: give his school a chance.