Quality Education in Chicago: For Members Only?

01/07/2011 03:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

They're doing it again. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is trying to hoard the best education resources for the highest-performing students.

Here's how they're doing it this time.

CPS has built a brand new state-of-the-art high school in Chicago's South Shore community, a mixed-income area located, as the name indicates, along the city's south lake front.

Since the beginning of the planning process, the new high school was described in writing and by officials at community meetings as a replacement for two aging buildings currently housing four small high schools at South Shore High School. The new facility is across the street from the current buildings.

CPS now proposes to open a completely new school in the new building. This "International College Prep" school would have a predominantly selective, test score-based enrollment. Since barely 10 percent of South Shore's current students meet state test standards on average, it's unlikely that many of these students would qualify.

Students as place holders

But wait. It gets better. You've heard of push-outs, "unwanted" students who are pushed out of a charter or other non-neighborhood school back to a neighborhood attendance school? Well, South Shore students are about to be pushed-in, then pushed-out.

It seems that the district needs those students' bodies now. By law, the new building must be occupied by January 31. Since the new student body has not yet been selected, the district needs current South Shore students to be place holders.

On the last day of school before winter break, CPS distributed a letter to parents of students at two of the small schools explaining that "students...will be temporarily relocated" to the new building, just until the end of this school year (Ho Ho Ho!!). Their current school building will be demolished.

Next fall, students from all four small schools will be consolidated into the second original building and two of the small schools will be phased out. Meanwhile, across the street, the "select" students will begin classes in their beautiful new building with what a pro-college prep community leader calls "a unique academically enhanced high school."

Better schools for better students

This is nothing new for Chicago, though giving students a taste of a great new building, then yanking them back out, is an especially sadistic twist.

For example, several years ago, when CPS began to lay the groundwork for a new Martin Luther King College Prep in what was a low-performing South Side neighborhood high school, community meetings were held to woo parents with promises of great new programs and equipment. Architecture and engineering classes! TV and film labs! New art and music programs!

While some were sold, others wondered why these new programs could not have been brought in to the current school. "What's wrong with our kids?" they thought.

South Shore parents have the same questions. "You can't make one school better and tell existing students they aren't good enough," April Whitaker, parent advisory council chairwoman for the South Shore High School of the Arts, told the Chicago Tribune. Steve Ross, chair of the School of Technology Local School Council, asked, "What's going to happen to all the kids that can't get into the new school?"

Selective accountability

The standards and accountability movement can take credit for at least one major accomplishment -- it has effectively encouraged some schools and districts to turn their backs on the most challenging students. Officials may simply hope that these students will just go away, and, of course, many of them do. Then, bingo -- test scores go up!

In Chicago, thousands of students are retained every year based on standardized tests that were never designed to be used for promotion decisions. CPS officials know that retention has increased the dropout rate, but they continue this practice, perhaps with a sense of relief that they are passing at least some of these low scoring students on to other districts, to homeschooling, or to the streets.

Charter and other privately-managed schools have many ways of pushing out undesirable students, too. "Waiting for Superman" star Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone notably "fired" its first class of students for low test scores.

KIPP schools, also popular with the media, are well-known for having a large attrition rate and lower percentages of special needs students.

In fact, the South Shore small schools themselves struggle every year to absorb lower-scoring students from charter schools who stream in right before state tests are given.

PURE has regularly raised red flags about Chicago's turnaround schools "losing" significant numbers of students, yet they are hailed by the Education Secretary as models for the nation.

The "neutron" option

I've concluded that the education "reform" most popular with the "Waiting for Superman" set is the one where you keep the schools and get rid of the most at-risk students (and their teachers), what I like to call the "neutron" option.

Apparently it's OK with WfSers for schools and districts to pick and choose which students they want to educate. In their brave new world, education is no longer a right, but a privilege for the already-advantaged. Market forces at work!

What will they think of next -- repeal of the Voting Rights Act?