Moving Beyond the Neighborhood School: Chicago’s Magnet, Selective Enrollment, Charter, and Private Schools

The Chicago Public Schools system (CPS) is the third largest public school system in the nation. Only New York City and Los Angeles public schools service more students than the city of Chicago. As is common practice in large districts, most students attend the elementary, middle, and high school that is in the neighborhood. They attend their “neighborhood school” throughout their educational experience in CPS.

In large districts like CPS, a school’s funding is tied to property taxes. Schools in neighborhoods with a lower socioeconomic factors (determined by analyzing the area’s medial income, percentage of families who own homes, percentage of families with high school diplomas, and percentage of families with a college diploma) often contribute far less to their schools via property taxes.

This system is not limited to the City of Chicago.

In order to address the city’s enormous school-going population, Chicago Public Schools offers a variety of school options. Within CPS, there are magnet schools, charter schools, military academies, and selective enrollment schools. All of these schools are open to any of 404,151 students. However, there are limitations to each of the school environments. Let me briefly explain the enrollment process for each of the educational options in the city:

  1. Neighborhood Schools: Open to any student within the neighborhood the school services. No additional application requirements. There are 472 neighborhood elementary schools in CPS (As of 2012 and not including the recent school closures).
  2. Magnet Schools: Open to any student within the city, regardless of neighborhood. Each school has a distinctive focus area (i.e. Science, Math, or Language). Entrance and acceptance into the school is based on a computerized lottery. There are 41 magnet schools in CPS.
  3. Charter Schools: Open to any student within the city, regardless of neighborhood. Each school has their own unique curriculum, schedule, calendar, and admissions process. Acceptance into most charter schools is based on computerized lottery. There are 53 charter elementary schools in CPS.
  4. Contract Schools: Open to any student within the city, regardless of neighborhood.  Each school is operated by an outside group who has negotiated a contract with the Board of Education. Acceptance into contract schools is based on a random lottery.There are 3 contract schools in CPS.
  5. Classical Schools: Open to students who test their way into the school. Students’ ISAT scores must be at least 1-2 grade levels above their current grade level. Each classical school administers an accelerated curriculum. There are 5 contract schools in CPS.
  6. Regional Gifted Centers: Open to students who apply to the each gifted center and who test their way into the school. Students’ ISAT scores must be in the 90th percentile or above. Each regional gifted center offers an accelerated curriculum with an emphasis on creativity, thinking, reasoning, and problem solving. Additional instruction in world languages and technology is also incorporated. There are 13 regional gifted centers in CPS.
  7. Selective Enrollment Schools: Open to students who complete the application process and test their way into the school. Students’ ISAT scores must be within the acceptable range of the schools they apply to. There are 35 selective enrollment schools in CPS.

Got it? Needless to say, the types of school available to students in the city is already somewhat overwhelming. But wait, there is more.

Adding to the confusion, CPS had to determine how to administer their random and computerized lotteries. How would the lotteries be implemented? What factors would weigh into the selection? How would there be equal representation across the city’s neighborhoods? CPS’ solution was the development of 4 socio-economic tiers.

Each of the tiers is determined by the following criteria:

  1. Median family income
  2. Percent of households occupied by the owner
  3. Percent of families headed by a single parent
  4. Percent of households where a language other than English is spoken
  5. Educational attainment score

Based on a family’s score, they are placed in a respective tier. During the lottery, each tier must be represented equally. One quarter of all admitted students into a school must come from Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3 and Tier 4. Therefore, a family’s tier plays a significant role in their chances of being selected into one of Chicago Public Schools non-neighborhood schools.

Curious as to what Chicago’s tier system looks like? Below you will find the most up-to-date tier map based on 2013-2014 US census data. However, it is also important to know that as Chicago’s neighborhoods shift, so too do the tiers.

The most up-to-date tier map based on the census criteria.
The most up-to-date tier map based on the 2013-2014 census criteria.

Non-neighborhood schools are attended by students from all over the city of Chicago. This diverse representation creates an extremely unique classroom community. Of the 32 students I see every morning at Andrew Jackson Language Academy, only a handful come from the surrounding neighborhoods. However, some of my students’ days begin much earlier than others. As a result of the computerized lottery and tier systems, some of my students commute across the entire city each and every school day.

When educational policy makers discuss their rationale behind the increase in non-neighborhood schools, their arguments center on improved student achievement. Advocates argue that students who are enrolled in non-neighborhood schools out perform their counterparts on all standardized tests. This position, in turn, leads to the assumption that more learning is occurring in non-neighborhood schools.

Personally, I do not believe there is enough consistent data to support any of those claims. There are examples of both neighborhood and non-neighborhood schools succeeding and struggling to produce acceptable standardized test scores. (A full listing of CPS’ elementary schools can be found here.) Only time will tell if non-neighborhood schools are the answer. Call it overly idealistic, but I believe all students should receive a quality and relative education. If the non-neighborhood school system is proven to be successful on multiple levels (Successful citizens in and out of the classroom, strong school community, test scores, etc) then I will advocate strongly for that school system.

Again, only time will tell. All good things take time.

As one of the largest urban districts in the United States, the Chicago Public Schools face difficult challenges. The district believes that their computerized lottery and tier systems provide the best services for their student population.  While neighborhood schools are still the most attended in CPS, non-neighborhood schools are becoming increasingly popular. The entire nation is paying close attention to Chicago. The successes or failures of non-neighborhood schools will undoubtedly transcend the windy city.

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