* Kate Grossman writing in the Atlantic…
Austin High School on Chicago’s struggling West Side is a proud school with a bad reputation and too few students. It likely has just one more shot at survival.
Austin has hollowed out in recent years, as have dozens of similar schools across Chicago’s poor and mostly Latino and black neighborhoods. With 391 students, including just 57 freshmen across three academies in a building meant for nearly 1,700, Austin is one of 35 Chicago public high schools that are well under half full. Ten schools aren’t even a quarter full.
These schools face a set of woes that make a turnaround all but impossible. A citywide school-choice system leaves these mostly open-enrollment schools with some of Chicago’s most challenging and low-achieving students. Deeply strained budgets fueled by declining enrollment hurt staffing levels, teacher retention, and programming. Mix in a stubborn reputation for violence at many schools—unwarranted in the case of Austin and some others—and these schools are in a death spiral.
In a high-school universe defined by choice, these schools and students are the clear losers. Chicago’s neediest students are clustered at the bottom of the pecking order of the district, in the most under-resourced and embattled schools.
Chicago has a poor track record of delivering for its weakest students but this latest chapter, arguably an inevitable and predictable consequence of school choice, may be a new low. Students who need the healthiest and most stable schools are segregated in the most unstable institutions, often with the most troubled classmates. Victims of a set of powerful and destructive forces that have undermined their schools and neighborhoods, these students and their schools face an increasingly bleak and uncertain future.
* The kicker…
Meanwhile, the city since 2000 has opened dozens of schools to offer more choice and retain the middle class. Most are public charter schools that admit by lottery but a bevy of test-based schools and programs also launched. Chicago now has 101,000 students in 140 high schools, excluding alternative schools. In 2000, CPS had 93,000 students in 86 high schools. That’s a 63 percent increase in schools against an 8 percent increase in students. For neighborhoods like Austin that have lost population, this seats-students mismatch is particularly devastating.
Neighborhood schools weren’t working in many neighborhoods at the bottom of the economic ladder. So, Chicago embraced public school choice. But that isn’t working either for kids on the lowest economic rungs. Charters can kick kids out for low performance, behavioral problems, etc. and they do that a lot.
I happen to think charters can be a great thing. But, man, the costs sure are high to run all those new schools. And innovators like Kansas City are also having some very real problems.
All I do know for sure is that slogans on both sides don’t help matters much. So, try to avoid them in comments. Thanks.