THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Economic Tier Scheme for CPS Selective Enrollment Schools: Go Back to the Drawing Board

Looking back on it, I just don't know how I made it in.

Growing up at Addison and Lincoln there was no question where I wanted to go to high school: the gorgeous, ivy-covered walls of Albert G. Lane Technical High School up the street at Addison and Western.

The place where, every time I mentioned it, older folks would say "that place, yeah, my brother went there ... before they let girls in."

I remember the first time I ever graced Lane's halls as a knock-kneed 8th grader back around February of 1988. There, on that stunning campus, I took something called an "entrance exam." When the bell rung, out flooded big girls and boys of every color, style, and age imaginable and I remember I just could not wait to join them and be totally cool with a new-wave hair-do and black and white tights in thick black clod-hopping combat boots.

2009-11-12-LaneTech.jpgAlso I remember being told to not hold my breath. "I hope you noticed all the other boys and girls in that auditorium taking the same test you did, Esther," Mr. Nutley, the St. Andrew's school principal warned me and the three other kids who had braved the elements to take the test. "They're all really bright, too, I hope your family applied to other schools just in case."

Fast forward to November 2009.

I absolutely cannot begin to imagine what sort of Dickensian horror city parents today go through to get their kids into decent schools. Even the schools in the "good" neighborhoods have spotty teaching quality and the rest -- well, their achievement and standardized test scores speak for themselves. That leaves selective-enrollment schools like Lane Tech and Payton College Preps, and magnets like Whitney Young and Chicago Metropolitan High schools.

Now, in the wake of the "clout scandal" and the recent tossing of the 1980 desegregation consent decree that had given schools leeway in admissions based on race, the Chief Mathemagician at CPS, Ron Huberman, has come up with a plan to select enrollment to these schools based on family income.

As ace education reporter Rosalind Rossi outlined in Wednesday's Sun-Times story "College Preps to admit by income" there will be four economic tiers ranging from $22,959 to $61,862, which is estimated to cover about 600,000 students -- the neediest in the city. But it leaves the "middle class" kids whose family's household income is above that top number. The kids of Frank the fireman and Darla the nurse who are doing alright, but probably not alright enough to send their kids to private schools if they can't get them into the "good" CPS schools.

I have consistently clanged the bell of educational equality based on socio-economic status over race for years, and I'm really glad Huberman has taken his statistical analysis skills out of the same tired old race box, but I worry that there will still be kids unfairly left behind.

Depending on whether the plan gets voted in by the CPS School Board Dec. 16 and then on a "principal pick" situation, the admission status of a sibling, scores on entrance tests, and/or proximity to schools, there's still ample opportunity for families to be left out in the cold.

What, exactly, is so wrong with putting all eligible kids -- ignoring race and income -- in a locally televised lottery for all to see?

Why are we contriving to ensure the proper mix of students by segregating them whether it is by race or income? In either case you exclude city residents because they aren't the right color or because they've been fortunate enough to make a decent living for themselves. It just doesn't feel fair.

My parents, thank goodness, were professionals who came to this country with some serious skills. They lived out an American Dream that included a private elementary school that enabled me to make the cut and live my life-long desire to attend Lane Technical High School.

If I were trying to get in today -- under this new plan, if it is passed -- I would have lost a leg-up on the ethnicity aspect (which would have been perfectly fine by me), might have still shined based on my academic prowess, but might have gotten passed over because my parents made too much money. I don't like those odds.

All parents want to believe that if they work hard, they can get a decent education for their kids. City parents know it's a gamble between a bad or so-so school; short of leaving town, all Chicago parents just want an equal chance at some of the better schools regardless of their income or race.

The CPS School Board -- which was appointed to represent all parents, not just the financially neediest ones -- must ensure they get their fair shot.

Esther J. Cepeda writes about education, fairness, and much, much more on www.600words.com