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Chicago high schools have long held a tragic reputation.
For years, district-wide dropout rates have hovered near 50 percent. High school test scores remain low. Only a relative few students have been able to attend selective schools, where seats are reserved for students with exceptional records in elementary school.
Now, a new group of schools is telling a different story: Students citywide can succeed academically when given the chance.
More than a decade ago, CPS began an experiment that allowed independent groups and neighborhood organizations to start their own open enrollment schools: charter schools. Today, just 29 out of Chicago’s 131 high schools that reported ACT results are charter schools – yet these independent schools are topping the education charts. In fact, when it comes to ACT scores, nine out of ten of the top-scoring, open enrollment high schools in Chicago are charter schools. Better yet, many of these schools are posting ACT scores previously unheard of for high poverty high schools in Chicago.
The overwhelming majority of students in Chicago Public Schools, or CPS, attend traditional “open enrollment” high schools. These high schools must accept any student who shows up – and it is these schools that have traditionally been beset with setbacks and failures.
However, charter schools have emerged as a bright spot in Chicago’s open enrollment schools. Nearly 10 percent of CPS high school students now attend charter high schools, and many of these schools, while relatively new, are demonstrating success.
The average ACT scores of charter school students during the 2010-11 school year show significant promise. When ranking Chicago’s open enrollment high schools by average ACT score (Graphic 1), 14 out of the top 25 composite scores are charter schools. Nine of the top 10 schools are charters, seven of which are part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools. Also very notable is that the only open enrollment schools that received average, composite ACT scores of 20 or above – considered to be a threshold of college-readiness – are in the Noble Network. Sadly, this is a feat achieved by no traditional, open enrollment public high school in Chicago in the last ten years.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn recently signed the Charter School Quality Act, legislation that lays the groundwork for an increased number of high-quality charter schools throughout Illinois. With this momentum for change, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel should seize the opportunity to follow through with his campaign promise to expand the number of high-quality charter schools in CPS. City officials should:
- Request proposals from charter groups and community associations to create new charter schools;
- Propose the abolishment of the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state and city;
- Maintain strong charter school authorizing practices that minimize bureaucracy and focus on quality and accountability; and
- Provide equitable per pupil funding to charter schools relative to traditional district schools.
Why This Works
When given a chance, Chicago’s low-income students can compete. Of the 14 high-performing charter high schools measured this year, 12 enrolled low-income students near or above the district average of 87 percent.
Charter schools operate with less funding from the city than traditional public schools, yet their operational flexibility has cultivated a cadre of dedicated, devoted and determined teachers and schools ensuring the educational success of Chicago’s poorest students. Elected officials should embrace this, and seek to further expand high quality educational choices for parents and students.
All data in this report were acquired from the website of the Chicago Public Schools’ Department of Research and Evaluation. Determinations of whether individual high schools should be considered “selective” or “open enrollment” were made using information from CPS’s website and interviews conducted by the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.
We eliminated 20 of the 45 schools with the top composite ACT scores to reach the top 25 non-selective schools. It’s not always easy to decide whether a school is selective or non-selective, so we decided to err on the side of caution. If there was any doubt, we classified the school as non-selective.
Schools labeled as Selective Enrollment were Northside College Prep, Walter Payton Prep, Whitney Young Prep, Jones College Prep, Lane Tech College Prep, Lindblom College Prep, Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, King College Prep, and Chicago Agricultural High School. By definition, these were not considered open enrollment schools. We identified six additional schools to be placed on this list since they admit at least fifty percent of their students through a selective process: the “magnet schools” DeVry High, Von Steuben High, and Curie High as well as the “neighborhood schools” Lincoln Park High and Daniel Hale Williams Prep School and finally the “Career Academy” Prosser High.
The city’s Military Academies, like selective enrollment schools, use test scores to determine admissions. Past school attendance and behavior are considered as well. The following were labeled as selective: Rickover Naval Academy, Phoenix Military Academy, Marine Military Academy, Chicago Military Academy, and Carver Military Academy.
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