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Chicago’s exam schools offer lessons to Boston’s evolving admission process

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 7/5/2021 Bianca Vázquez Toness
a group of people standing on a sidewalk: Students at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago returned books. © John Zich for The Boston Globe Students at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago returned books.

The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.

CHICAGO ― A little more than 10 years ago, Chicago school officials were under pressure to find a new way to assign students to their most elite schools. They wanted to maintain diversity but were barred from using racial quotas, so they came up with a complex system that awards a certain number of seats based purely on grades and scores, and the rest by socioeconomic status.

Now, after years of resisting any changes to its purely merit-based system, Boston is considering something similar. And there’s a lot they can learn from Chicago.

Chicago’s approach factors in where students live to provide insight into how disadvantaged or privileged they are. While many cities have struggled to integrate their most competitive high schools, Chicago has found some success in diversifying its top schools.

”If applied in Boston, it can increase the socioeconomic diversity in these schools,” said Tanisha Sullivan, cochair of the exam school task force. “I don’t think people fully understand that the schools were not socioeconomically diverse . . . People expressed concern that the [the temporary policy assigning seats using] zip codes did not take into consideration the gentrification in our city.”

Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank, said “Chicago has really been a pioneer.”

“It’s not perfectly representative, but it’s about the best you’re going to get,” he said.

Chicago’s system uses census data to determine the level of disadvantage in a given neighborhood and rank those neighborhoods by their level of wealth and privilege, creating four “census tiers.”

The bar for admittance depends on where students live: those residing in the poorest and most disadvantaged neighborhoods need lower scores and grades to get into selective enrollment schools than students coming from the wealthiest areas. (Each of the 11 schools has their own minimum composite scores for admissions.)

Without such changes, 10th grader Justis Walker, who is Black, would not have gotten into Chicago’s Lane Tech College Preparatory High School, his mother, Rosalynn Walker said. He has ADHD, which makes it difficult to focus so he didn’t have straight As. But living in a low-income neighborhood meant his scores and grades didn’t have to be as high as those coming from more affluent areas. He now thrives at the high-tech school, where students can take classes in robotics and artificial intelligence, and “doesn’t get bullied for being smart,” his mom said.

Seventy percent of seats in Chicago are equally divided among the highest scorers applying from the four census tiers. The remaining 30 percent are assigned to the top scorers citywide, no matter their economic background. Chicago school leaders initially started with 40 percent going to the highest achievers, but soon scaled that back.

Boston would do something similar, assigning the first 20 percent of seats to the students across the city with the best grades and entrance exam scores. The remaining 80 percent would be divided equally among eight tiers, most of them designed based on socioeconomic characteristics of the people living there.

Attempt to water down plan to bring more disadvantaged children into exam schools generates a backlash

Boston added another feature to Chicago’s basic design — a 10 percent bump to the composite scores of students attending schools where at least half of the students are economically disadvantaged. Boston’s proposal also places more emphasis on grades than the entrance exam.

Despite its accolades, not everything about Chicago’s system has worked perfectly.

Standing outside her daughter’s eighth grade graduation on Chicago’s south side, Senneca Forbes held silver balloons for her daughter as other parents congratulated her for placing second in her class. Forbes went to Whitney Young Magnet High School, one of the city’s most competitive selective enrollment high schools, where she was in the majority as a Black student.

This year she said no one from her daughter’s class at this majority Black elementary school in a low-income neighborhood got into Whitney Young, which now only has 19 percent Black students.

Her daughter will attend a selective enrollment math and science high school on the South Side that is majority Black and Latino, but doesn’t have the same resources as Whitney Young. “I wish the South Side schools were just as good,” she said.

While Chicago’s combined exam school populations are more diverse than similar schools in other cities, there’s concern that the district’s selective enrollment schools have re-segregated since a federal judge lifted orders mandating specific levels of integration — 65 to 85 percent for “minority students” at the city’s magnet schools. “It didn’t work perfectly. The racial disparity grew,” said Alan Mather, a former principal of a selective enrollment high school on Chicago’s South Side who helped review the policy.

Four of the five most competitive selective enrollment schools have very low percentages of Black students, while the share of white students has grown since the city’s desegregation orders were lifted. Several selective enrollment schools are nearly 100 percent Black and Latino. (Districtwide, Black students make up 36 percent, and Latino students 47 percent.) Some Black Chicago students said they have to choose between schools where they feel most comfortable and schools that have the most resources.

Niya Simmons, 17, almost passed up going to Northside College Preparatory High School, one of Chicago’s top ranked and well-resourced high schools because only 9 percent of students were Black.

In the end, she was convinced by the resources, including the robust number of Advanced Placement classes offered and the financial aid she would receive for school fees. The school’s parent fund-raising organization, which has $1 million in reserves according to its most recent tax filings, also has covered school tutoring, teacher computers, and a language lab. The selective enrollment high school closest to Simmons’ home, where her younger brother goes to school, doesn’t appear to have similar parent fundraising and has fewer advanced courses.

Read more from The Great Divide, the Globe's team covering race, class, and opportunity in our schools.

Chicago’s South Side resident Leslie Triplett-Bracy plans to make a different choice for her sons, preferring selective high schools where at least half of students are Black. “I would be afraid for him to be at a place that’s not good for Black children,” she said pointing at her nine-year-old son.

This is a dynamic familiar to Boston’s Black and Latino students choosing between the well-heeled but less diverse Boston Latin School and Boston Latin Academy and John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science, which have more students of color but modest fund-raising groups.

But based on Chicago’s experience, changing the assignment process won’t be enough to disrupt the disparity in resources among the schools. According to Mather, Chicago’s school board explored ways to force wealthy exam schools to share their fundraising dollars with other schools, but decided it was impossible to stop parents and alumni from circumventing any rules they came up with. For Boston, it may still be worth a try.

Some advocates have complained it was too complicated and worry that the families the plan is meant to help can’t navigate its nuances. “Those who understand the process and ramifications will be able to work it better in their favor,” said Pierre Clark, parent and newsletter editor at the Black Star Project, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides educational workshops to Black and Latino students.

Boston could learn from this and make sure to educate students and parents early on about the new process and what it might mean for their children.

Others have also found fault with Chicago’s system because it’s not precise enough, and this might benefit students with higher incomes or savvy parents. “Chicago could do a better job of identifying socioeconomic disadvantage,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York-based liberal think tank, who helped design Chicago’s admissions system.

Under Chicago’s plan — and the proposal Boston is considering — there’s nothing stopping a parent from moving to a low-income neighborhood to improve their children’s odds of getting an exam school seat.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools in North Carolina has tried to solve this problem by creating census tiers and asking parents to provide their income and education level. Boston isn’t planning to do this, because of privacy concerns, but may want to reconsider. (Boston has proposed creating a separate tier for homeless students and students living in Boston Housing Authority homes.)

Chicago has tried to build in supports to help students find success at their elite high schools, including tutoring, and math and writing clinics, but some parents of students with disabilities still don’t feel comfortable sending their children to Chicago’s selective enrollment high schools.

Rosalyn Walker’s son attends a special study hall to help him decide which assignments to tackle first and how to stay organized. The class helps him tremendously, but Walker resents that it means her son has less room in his schedule each year for elective classes like robotics.

If Boston wants a more diverse group of students to thrive at its exam schools, it should consider beefing up existing supports and making sure they don’t come at the cost of missing other enriching opportunities.

Perhaps the most significant sign of Chicago’s success is longevity. The district hasn’t faced any significant legal challenges because of its assignment policy. Kahlenberg attributes this to the fact nearly one-third of seats go to top scorers. “There was a sense that it represented an appropriate — and politically acceptable— balance between honoring traditional views of academic merit and the critical goal of enhancing diversity,” said Kahlenberg.

Political sustainability is critical, he added. “You don’t want to create a system that will prompt a backlash and get repealed at a later date.”

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