Chicago's (Still) Divided Public Schools

Photo: Kit Leong /

This piece was first published in the November 9th issue of the New America Weekly

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. For the inaugural CC, the Millennial Fellows explore how their personal perspectives influence the policies they're interested in. 

Growing up in Chicago, your experiences with education, housing, food security, job prospects, and law enforcement are all largely determined by your zip code. Chicago has, at turns, been described as a “laboratory of segregation” and as having a “legacy of segregation...probably more ingrained than in any other city in the country.” Chicago is massively unequal when determining the distribution of resources provided to citizens, and this practice nearly exclusively follows neat racial lines. Black and Latinx communities, living predominantly in the South and West sides of the city, receive far fewer benefits than the Whiter, more affluent North side. One of these benefits, of which I was extremely privileged to receive, is an adequate high school education, which I accepted in large part due to my zipcode.

My high school, appropriately titled Northside College Prep, is one of a system of eleven selective-enrollment high schools in the city that uses middle school grades and standardized test scores to determine admission. Getting into these schools is brutal-- I knew students who lied about their home address to gain residency and others who spent thousands of dollars on test prep materials, and the competition is very real. In the 2015-16 school year, 13,413 students applied for only 3,600 spots. Unsurprisingly, many of the students who have advantages gaining enrollment come from affluent North side families. Elaine Allensworth, director of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, refers to this system as “triple segregation”: first residential, then economic, and then, by way of selective-enrollment, achievement.

Once you’re in a selective-enrollment school, the opportunities afforded to you are incredible. A computer science teacher at Northside took a 70% pay cut to come work for the school. An expansion project at Walter Payton College Prep received $17 million. The resources thrown at selective enrollment schools and the students in them are staggering, and it shows in the results-- as of 2016, selective enrollment CPS high schools occupy numbers one, two, three, four, six, and nine on the list of best schools in Illinois.

But as Chicago Public Schools (CPS) pushes for the continued improvement of selective-enrollment schools, they pull from other areas in need. The budget cuts CPS revealed for 2016 reduced funding for 443, or 67%, of the almost 660 schools in the district. Of the selective-enrollment schools, only three, or 27%, would lose money, and two of those schools, Southshore and King, are on the South side. It can be argued that these budgeting changes were made based on fluctuating enrollment, but taking a closer look at my old high school, one will notice that enrollment was actually going down, while the budget increased by $261,134, to just over $7 million.

My selective-enrollment high school experience should be standard for every CPS student-- I graduated with nearly the entirety of my class after my fourth year at Northside, and set off to college with a scholarship. I benefitted greatly from the personal attention, dedication, and resources that were within my grasp for those four formative years. Because of this education, I was pushed up a ladder of incredible upward social mobility, and had a much better chance than most CPS students of graduating college and finding a well-paying job in my chosen field afterwards. But I know that this experience of adequate education is simply inaccessible to too many Chicago students. Now, there is a movement to abandon the selective-enrollment model and instead focus on building up community schools, providing them with the tools they need to propel students towards achievement. An increased attention to community educational needs, as opposed to laser-focused support for high-achieving students, is one way to potentially right the segregational wrongs of Chicago’s history.

I know what this may seem like— empty words from someone who is no longer affected by the system. Someone who benefitted and left, and knows no one who would be directly impacted by the changes that I support. But that is exactly the lens that Chicagoans need to abandon. We are all affected by CPS policy, because said policy has a hugely significant impact on the social mobility of city residents, and consequently, what the city will look like for generations to come. That policy, if it remains unchanged, can reinforce over a century of racist history that has led to such severe divergences in the services provided to citizens. Those policies improved however, could engage residents in a more equitable culture and series of opportunities. This is not the only way to fix these issues, but it is a step towards mitigating the harm that has been inflicted for too long. That is a future worth fighting for, and that is a future in which all Chicagoans should be directly invested and willing to help create.


Emma Coleman is a Millennial Public Policy Fellow in New America’s Public Interest Technology program. She received a BA from Stanford University in international relations and comparative studies in race and ethnicity.