Boston school officials are exploring the potentially dicey question of whether to change the admission requirements for the city’s three exam schools in an effort to boost enrollment of black and Latino students.
An advisory committee formed to look at the admissions could usher in the biggest changes to the entry requirements since a federal court ruling prompted the school system to stop using race as an admissions factor more than 15 years ago.
The exploration is a direct result of several allegations of racial discrimination at the city’s top exam school, Boston Latin School, where some students said administrators responded inadequately to complaints about racially charged behavior at the school.
Superintendent Tommy Chang said the goal of the advisory panel is to ensure that all students have a fair shot at attending Boston Latin, Boston Latin Academy, and O’Bryant School of Math and Science.
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“The current admissions policy focuses on GPAs and test results, and the group is looking at that,” Chang said in an interview Thursday.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh, however, immediately distanced himself from the idea, saying Friday night that it was premature to look at making any changes to admissions requirements.
“I had no idea this committee was formed,” the mayor told the Globe in an interview Friday night. “I have a lot of concerns about it. . . . I don’t think it’s the right time to be talking about it.”
Walsh said he learned of the advisory panel by reading a story about it published Friday night on BostonGlobe.com.
He said the school system should be focusing on creating more opportunities for students of color to take rigorous course work. He pointed to this year’s city budget that allocates more money for advanced work classes and his effort to add 300 seats to the exam school initiative, which is a summer program.
“We have more kids than exam schools,” Walsh said. “We need to raise the quality of all our schools.”
One idea being urged by civil rights leaders to enhance diversity is to guarantee admission from top performers from each school in the city. Currently, along with having stellar grades, students must pass a rigorous entrance exam to gain admittance to the competitive public schools, as early as seventh grade.
Schools across the United States are barred from overtly using race as a determining factor in admission decisions.
But a series of Supreme Court rulings and guidance documents from the federal government in recent years have provided a road map for school systems on how to use proxies for race, such as guaranteeing admission to top-performing students from all ZIP codes, according to civil rights activists.
In some instances, the Supreme Court says that race can still be used as a factor so long as it is not a determining one.
Boston Latin and Latin Academy have been enrolling disproportionately high percentages of white and Asian students when compared with school system averages, while admitting smaller shares of black and Latino students. O’Bryant has disproportionately high rates of Asian students.
At Boston Latin School, for instance, 8.5 percent of students are black, and 11.6 percent are Latino. By contrast, 32.4 percent of students districtwide are black, and 41.5 percent are Latino.
Beyond potential changes to admissions requirements, Chang said the group is looking at ways to boost academic opportunities for students in elementary schools — such as expanding rigorous courses during the school year and summer — so they can compete more aggressively for exam school admissions. The group will also suggest strategies to publicize the process of applying to exam schools to families who might be unfamiliar with them.
The group has been quietly meeting since at least May, poring over reams of data. The group consists largely of civil rights attorneys, civil rights activists, and high-ranking school officials. The committee includes one grammar school teacher, but no designee from any of the exam schools, according to information provided by the School Department.
The members are racing to prepare recommendations by the beginning of the upcoming school year, according to a timeline established in a report by the school system’s Equity Office, which urged Chang to create the group.
Several civil rights organizations — including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, which has a seat on the committee — wrote Chang a letter in May highlighting various ways the city could change admissions policies to increase student diversity.
The potential options include guaranteeing admission to students from every school in the system who perform in the highest quartile at their schools. The organizations also said the courts allow school systems to craft admissions policies that give greater weight to students based on their parents’ level of education, the income level in their neighborhoods, or enrollment at an underperforming school.
“All those options promote racial diversity without looking at whether candidate A is white, candidate B is black, or candidate C is Asian,” said Matthew Cregor, who sits on the advisory committee, but was speaking in his capacity as the education project director at the lawyers’ committee.
“A lot of what we are going to need to do as a city is make sense of the data and see how the current [admission requirements] succeed or fail,” Cregor added.
“Our hope as a city is that we can figure out the factors to make sure children from all neighborhoods benefit and learn from each other.”
Civil rights leaders, since writing their letter, say they have felt even more emboldened by a US Supreme Court ruling last month that upheld a University of Texas policy that uses race as one of many factors in admissions decisions to ensure a diverse student body. Cregor said that ruling can have ripple effect into K-12 school admissions policies.
Boston is considered to have the nation’s second-strictest admissions policies for exam schools after some New York schools, where decisions are based exclusively on test scores.
Boston used to set aside a portion of exam-school seats for minority students. But a US Appeals Court in 1998 found the practice to be unconstitutional after a white student was denied admission and her family sued, prompting the school system to subsequently stop using race as a factor in admissions decisions.
Chester E. Finn Jr., a distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Fordham Institute, an education policy center, said that in an ideal world, exam schools should consider a more holistic range of factors, such as essays, recommendations, and interviews, like private colleges do.
“I think that certainly can produce a much more diverse and more interesting student body that is filled with eager, motivated kids,” said Finn, who wrote the 2012 book “Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools.”
He says he is no fan of basing admission on test scores. His research has identified 165 of the exam schools across the country, mostly in the Northeast.
But he added, “A holistic admission approach is also subjective and will be litigated by people who feel like their kid was better qualified and was not taken because of favoritism or race. It’s the problem of basing anything in the public sector on human judgment.”
Few Boston parents reached for comment Thursday were aware the advisory committee had been created or had heard only scant details of it. At least one Latin School parent welcomed a change to the admissions policy, noting that research has indicated a correlation between economic status and performance on standardized tests.
“I don’t know why the current method is the be all and end all of fairness,” said Megan Wolf, a member of QUEST, a grass-roots parents organization pushing for educational equity across the city.James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
Above: Students at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools
In October, the open-house rush begins: Parents will be dragging their seventh and eighth graders to Chicago-area high schools, both public and private, to see what they’re like. And it’s a stress fest. If you live in the city, your kid will face an uphill battle trying to get into one of CPS’s 10 selective enrollment high schools, even if he or she is whip-smart: A whopping 16,440 students competed for 3,200 freshman seats for the 2013–14 school year. And if you live in a suburb with an excellent high school, you still have to figure out if it’s right for your child. For example, not every adolescent will thrive at a place as big as Evanston Township High School (3,120 students last year), Oak Park and River Forest High School (3,266), or Winnetka’s New Trier Township High School (4,208).
Should you pony up for private school instead, as do the parents of about one-fifth of high schoolers in the city? Answering that question can be maddeningly difficult, partly because data for comparison are hard to come by. Measures of student-teacher ratios, test scores, and percentages of students going on to college is made available by CPS, but private schools need not divulge it. And getting helpful information from Catholic institutions in the metro area can be like extricating a cell phone from the grip of a teenager. “Our schools are not alike,” insists Jo Marie Yonkus, assistant superintendent for high schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, “and a chart like this causes people to rate schools and compare them.”
She’s referring to this chart, for which Chicago contacted 101 accredited private schools in the six-county metro area. About a third shared the information requested. Of these, only four archdiocesan schools agreed to participate, at least in part because the archdiocese explicitly asked the principals of the six high schools it operates and of its 31 affiliated Catholic schools in the Chicago area (whose names are listed below the chart) not to cooperate; more on that later. The chart also includes recent stats from five CPS selective enrollment schools and five top performers in the suburbs to help you compare.
Consider this guide a starting point, then, as you begin to navigate your way through the options. You’ll find lots of positives (such as the expansion of several excellent private schools) and a few negatives (how much money a year?). But first, a word about the much-maligned Chicago neighborhood high school—you know, the non-select-enrollment kind. With more prosperous families staying in the city, aren’t many of them getting better?
Well, yes and no. While CPS has started robust academic enrichment plans at many schools—for example, at Lake View High School, which recently implemented a rigorous STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program—many parents feel that meaningful results are still years off. “Give Lake View High School 10 years, and then I’d consider sending my kid there,” says one mother, who has an eighth grader at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, a private Jewish elementary school in Lake View. (She didn’t want her name used for fear of harming her child’s chances of admission at another school.)
Still, this parent says that the high school situation isn’t bad enough to prompt a move to the suburbs: “The time my husband would have to spend commuting to work would make us all unhappy.” Plus, she prefers public education to private because of the diversity it offers. “But if my child doesn’t get into a selective enrollment school,” she says, “we’ll have to look to private options as a backup.”
How Private Schools Stack Up
Unfortunately, someone with an eighth grader today can’t wait for CPS’s efforts to fix the dramatic supply-and-demand problem at selective enrollment schools. Yes, Jones College Prep (rated No. 4 on Chicago’s 2012 list of the city’s best public high schools) increased its capacity by 125 seats last year and by roughly 225 this year, thanks to a brand-new $115 million building that includes art studios, a reading garden, and a fitness center. And over the next two years the popular school in the South Loop will phase in 450 more students. But it will be a year before Walter Payton College Preparatory, near Old Town (rated No. 2 on Chicago’s 2012 list), opens a $17 million annex that will increase its enrollment by as many as 400 students.
And the recently announced Barack Obama College Preparatory High School, CPS’s 11th selective enrollment high school, won’t open until 2016. Its inaugural freshman class of 300 lucky kids will include 100 students who live within close proximity to the proposed location at Division Street and Clybourn Avenue.
Meanwhile, a handful of interesting new private high schools have popped up recently (see three of them below), and many established ones are growing to meet demand. For example, next year the French immersion school Lycée Français de Chicago will move from its rented Lake View location to a new $35 million campus in Ravenswood, which is on track to be finished in time for the 2015–16 school year. As a result of that expansion, the school will increase its high school program from 120 students to about 170. Lycée’s president, Alain Weber, says that the school’s recent opening of admissions to ninth graders who aren’t already fluent in French has increased demand for spots. (You can bet your kid will be speaking the language by graduation, he says.)
At the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in Hyde Park (which serve students from pre-K through 12th grade), a $25 million gift in February from Ariel Investments president Mellody Hobson and her husband, director George Lucas, helped finance a new arts building. It’s scheduled to open next fall. This expansion, plus planned future additions, will help the schools increase their capacity by 200 students across all grades.
What’s more, in September 2015, the British School of Chicago in Lincoln Park—part of a group of 29 schools in 12 countries—will open a second campus on Roosevelt Road in the South Loop, which will take 560 high school students, up from about 100 at the current location. Among the coming amenities: science labs, a recording studio, and a soccer field. Another plus for some parents is that the school does not require children to take an entrance test. Instead, it conducts assessments in math, English, foreign language, and science before admission. “We usually find that students have done very limited studying of the sciences,” says principal Michael Horton. “[But] that doesn’t mean we won’t accept them. We want to know what they know and don’t know.”
Competition for admission to the established private schools can be its own kind of rat race. For the 2014–15 school year, the Latin School in the Gold Coast received 282 applications for 51 ninth-grade spots, and Lincoln Park’s Francis W. Parker School reported a meager 19 percent acceptance rate for its incoming class, including new students in the upper grades.
Two of the most competitive Catholic high schools in the area—St. Ignatius College Prep in Little Italy and Loyola Academy in suburban Wilmette—also draw considerably more applicants than they have spots for. According to Elizabeth Cummings Carney, the director of admissions at St. Ignatius, the school received 991 applicants for 380 spots in its 2014–15 freshman class, a 38 percent acceptance rate.
“We don’t have any high school that says it’s only going to take the top 5 percent [of students],” the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Yonkus says, elaborating on why she believes these schools’ low acceptance numbers are still not comparable to those of CPS. “Even Loyola and St. Ignatius don’t make decisions like Northside Prep does. They may not take as many students from the bottom, but they do have programs for kids with special learning needs.”
Overall, the number of students in the archdiocesan high schools has fallen every year over the last five, from 26,333 in 2009–10 to 23,228 in 2013–14, according to figures Yonkus provided. “Selective enrollment schools are free, and obviously we’re not. That’s what kills us,” she says. “Students increase their ACT scores by an average of four to six points during the four years they’re with us. If our schools were free, we’d be competing right alongside [CPS selective enrollment schools].”
Tuition, of course, may be your child’s biggest impediment to a private school education. Independent private school tuition has increased 3 to 5 percent a year in Chicago since 2010, to an average of $19,898 for the 2013–14 school year, according to Myra A. McGovern, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools. That’s less than the rate of increase in places such as Seattle and Dallas, where tuitions have gone up by as much as 5 to 9 percent annually in the same period. But it’s significantly more than the rise in the cost of living.
On the plus side, financial aid packages can be generous. For example, last year about half of the 80 high school students at Chicago Waldorf School, an independent pre-K through 12 school on the Far North Side, received aid, with the average package of $11,690 covering a good chunk of the $18,100 tuition. At the Latin School, 19 percent of the 459 upper-school students received financial aid last year; with tuition at $29,825 and the average package nearly $27,000, that was almost a full ride. “Our goal is to make Latin affordable for families for whom the cost is the only barrier to attendance,” says spokeswoman Evelyne Girardet. “Our financial aid is need-based rather than merit-based.” NAIS estimates that in 2012 a family of four in Chicago could earn as much as $178,805 and still qualify for at least some financial aid for one child to attend a private school charging $25,000 per year in tuition.
Tuition at Catholic high schools still tends to be lower than at most independent private ones. St. Ignatius will charge $16,300 for the 2014–15 school year; Loyola, $14,775. Last fall, the archdiocese launched a program that grants full scholarships to high school students with at least one parent who did not graduate from college.
Something to consider: Selective enrollment high schools aren’t always the best fit, even for the high-achieving kids who get in. Irving Park resident Nathan Neff pulled his son Anderson out of ninth grade at Jones College Prep in 2012 after less than a month. “I was hopeful that Jones would provide a competitive education without me having to pay the $20,000,” says Neff, referring to what he had spent to send Anderson to the British School.
Resources for Parents
- cpsoae.org: Look for info about selective enrollment high schools under “programs.”
- cpsobsessed.com: Chicago mom Rebecca Labowitz’s engaging blog about all things CPS
- schools.archchicago.org: The Archdiocese of Chicago’s school portal
But almost immediately, he says, he and his wife realized that moving their son to Jones had been the wrong decision—mainly because Anderson reported not feeling challenged by the schoolwork. “Anderson said he was going over things he had learned three years earlier [at British],” says Neff. Another factor: Anderson’s short stint at Jones included the seven days of the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike. “My wife and I are both working parents, and we need to count on the fact that our three kids will be in school,” says Neff.
The Neffs found out that another ninth grader who had also previously attended the British School was having a similar experience at Jones; both kids ended up back at British. “We’re not high-pressure parents, but we are concerned about college admissions. We looked at where our son was and said, ‘If he can go 80 miles per hour, what good is an education that has him only going 60?’ ” Given Anderson’s experience, Neff says he and his wife probably won’t roll the dice on publics for their two younger children, currently in private schools. “There’s no inherent dislike of CPS,” he says. “It’s all about what works best for each individual child.”