As an eighth grader at a small Catholic elementary school, Railey Montgomery was excited to win a spot at Jones College Prep, a selective Chicago public school. She would take the train downtown, go to a sleek modern school and get to be around other bright, ambitious students like herself.
She’d be going to a high school named by U.S. News & World Report as one of the best in the country.
But by her sophomore year, she was discouraged. She and other students of color created a Facebook page where many shared stories of being hurt by offensive comments and actions by teachers and students. And she said she was upset by the principal “liking” the posts of what she saw as “problematic political figures.”
“Just seeing that was overwhelming and it tainted my experience,” said Railey, who is now a senior and president of the Black Student Union. Railey said she’s had to find her voice to demand change and doing the work has made the school feel like a better place for her.
For years now, Jones College Prep and other elite selective enrollment high schools in Chicago and in other big cities have been grappling with a racial reckoning of their own. A new racial equity assessment of Jones underscores the discontent among students as well as staff, but also the ways in which community members say the administration have failed to address these long-standing issues. The study was commissioned by the Jones principal and paid for with money from fundraising.
It included a survey, mostly of students and parents and some staff, the majority of whom said they don’t feel school staff “responds effectively to racist [or] prejudicial” behavior. It also shows that Black and Latino people surveyed feel significantly less included than people of other races. The survey covered nearly 800 people.
This comes as the five most high-profile selective enrollment high schools — created in part to promote integration in an otherwise highly segregated school system — enroll fewer low-income and Black students. At Jones, Black students make up only 12% of all students, down from 25% a decade ago. Meanwhile, white students now make up nearly 40% of the student body, compared to 27% a decade ago.
The percentage of low-income students at these schools dropped from 52% in 2012 to 36% this year.
These percentages began to decline after a federal judge in 2009 lifted a court order compelling CPS to integrate its test-in schools by race. CPS replaced that with an admissions system that factors in a student’s socioeconomic background, which was supposed to be a proxy for race. CPS leaders still maintain that they want these schools to be diverse and are now considering a major adjustment to try to increase the percentage of low-income students at these schools.
Amid these changes, Chicago’s top performing college preps — Jones, Whitney Young, Lane, Payton and Northside — as well as other elite schools across the country, have grappled with racial tensions and disparities in how different students experience the schools.
The district’s equity office has taken notice. Officials say they have worked with selective enrollment school students to revise the district’s “culturally responsive education and diversity policy.” It is expected to be presented to the public and school board in the fall. In a statement, the district said it is “wholly committed to ensuring that every student and staff member feels safe, welcome, and included in our buildings.“
This comes after Jones students in the 2019-20 school year led campaigns to bring attention to aspects of the school culture they felt harmed students, according to the racial equity assessment, which also included interviews with 21 Jones community members. That was followed by anti-racist trainings and other initiatives that the assessment called a “firm foundation for improving the experience of teachers, students and families.”
But schoolwide efforts have fallen short because the administration does not do enough to hold students or teachers accountable for implementing what they have learned in trainings or provide a clear plan and leadership, the assessment by Davis Squared Consulting concluded.
The report also notes that the administration didn’t provide information on discipline or academic achievement by race. It recommends the school focus on that data to “more effectively assess the academic realities” of different demographic groups. It also recommends building a pipeline for faculty of color to join the staff.
Jones Principal Joseph Power did not respond to requests for an interview. He has many defenders who say he has devoted himself to building up the school, and the equity assessment makes clear that the majority of people of each racial and ethnic race surveyed said they feel included at Jones. At least 50% from each group said they felt a sense of belonging at Jones.
In its statement, CPS said it would continue to work with Jones LSC and administration “to identify next steps and resources to address any issues of concern.” CPS officials also point out the Jones assistant principal is Black man who is part of a district program to equip and advance African American male and Latinx leaders.
Concerns of voices being drowned out
Despite that, Jones teachers say they notice two trends at the school that are impossible to quantify: More children from wealthy families attending and the political climate has empowered some to be more openly racist.
“It feels like the power and privilege is with the white kids which means a lot of other voices are getting drowned out … I think it has to do with money. There are a lot of well-off white kids who have very loud and powerful parents, and the problem is administration giving into those parents.” said Kat Tae, an Asian-American teacher at Jones who is so discouraged that she’s leaving after this school year.
Only 40% of all people of color surveyed said they agreed that the school respects their culture and that they are represented in the curriculum. The rest were either neutral or disagreed.
Jaclyn Smith, whose bi-racial daughter attends Jones, is disappointed that she doesn’t see the administration questioning things like whether Black students are graduating at the same rate or going to the same selective colleges.
Though her daughter is having a good experience at Jones, she questions whether she should have sent her to a school “more focused on educating Black and brown students.” For example, there are no college pathway programs specifically for Black students, she said.
“That is very frustrating because there is a difference in navigating the college space when you’re a person of color,” Smith said. “A lot of the college pathway programs are designed specifically to help support that piece. It’s not necessarily the academics, it’s the social piece.”
Railey said the small number of Black students at the school means they can feel isolated, especially when racial incidents come up.
“I definitely think the number of Black students has a real impact on the way that we’re treated,” Railey said. “When the administration doesn’t see us as a large percentage of the student body that’s affected by certain issues, they don’t necessarily care about our opinions.”
The racial equity report points to one example where this came up. It says administrators ask staff to be mindful of the viewpoints of Young Republican students or students who have parents who are police officers, but don’t offer similar support for those who experience harm or trauma from those viewpoints.
Yahira Tarr, who graduated from Jones in 2017, said when students would go to administration with complaints about racism, they were often disappointed with the response. She said once a white student posted herself on social media screaming the N-word and was just given a two-day in-school suspension.
“This infuriated the Black community at Jones and we were not heard,” she said.
Lina Pham, a current senior, said she also feels little support when students of color experience trauma. As a Vietnamese student, she said she was greatly affected by the 2021 Atlanta spa killings of eight people, six of them of Asian descent.
She said the killings were mentioned in a school email newsletter, but there wasn’t help available to process it or empathy toward Asian students. Pham said her Black friends felt the same during the George Floyd killing.
“Suddenly it is like information overload and it is really straining,” she said.
Also, in an academically rigorous school like Jones, Pham said the model minority myth comes to bear on Asian students, who she says aren’t asked if they need tutors or other help when they are struggling.
Seven Black teachers out of 110
Teachers also express a lot of frustration. Earlier this year, a Black teacher stepped down from coaching girls track after the principal overrode his decision to drop a student from the team. The student was thrown off the team after missing seven practices.
Speaking at a meeting about this situation, Jones teacher Melvin Slater said the way the situation played out was indicative of a bigger problem.
“I feel like this was an opportunity to change the culture of privilege at Jones,” he said.
Slater also said it was a missed chance to support a Black teacher. There are only seven Black teachers out of 110, he said.
“When you don’t support one Black teacher, you’re not supporting us all,” he said, adding that “we’re not only just talking about administration. I’m talking about staff and parents as well. So the mud has been splashed on everybody. The sentiment now, in my mind, is that Black teachers need not apply nor stay here at Jones.”
Tae, the teacher who is leaving, said there are real consequences for students when teachers leave because they don’t feel like the school has their backs.
Recently, a queer Asian American student like herself told her, “I see myself in you and, seeing like, how you’ve grown up, gives me comfort.”
Tae said she went into teaching to be there for those students, but, after all the strain she’s felt at the school, she now feels it’s not enough.
The racial assessment findings quietly came out a few months ago during a particularly tumultuous time at Jones. The Local School Council took the unprecedented step of trying to oust the principal in the middle of his contract. CPS CEO Pedro Martinez rejected that attempt. It sent a letter to the LSC last month saying there was insufficient evidence of misconduct to warrant an involuntary dismissal, but that an investigation was ongoing. He urged the LSC and the principal to work on improving their relationship.
The LSC moved to remove Powers, the principal, in part because they say he has not created a welcoming environment or responded aggressively to racism.
Powers, who has been principal for 14 years, publicly defended his tenure in a letter, accusing the LSC of doing everything in its power to undermine him. But he did not address culture and climate in that letter and he did not respond to a request for comment on the findings of the racial equity assessment.
In the letter, Powers lauds the progress of the school, writing that Jones grew from 750 students to 2,000 students during his tenure and is now the top choice of most students who enroll.
Correction: This story was updated to say that the racial equity assessment was commissioned by the Jones principal.