Chicago schools: even more segregated than they seem



In 214 Chicago schools last year, 83,820 students--none of them white
  • andymangold
  • In 214 Chicago schools last year, 83,820 students—none of them white
As we note in the paper this week, in a story about two Chicago-area girls and their strikingly different roads to college, the Chicago Public School enrollment last year was 91 percent minority and 87 percent low-income. When only 9 percent of the students are white, it's pretty hard to offer any semblance of integration. It's even harder when the few white kids are clustered in a handful of schools.

Our analysis of CPS figures shows that last year, only 13 percent of the white students were in schools in which 9 percent or fewer of the students were white. Sixty-nine percent of the white kids went to schools that were at least 25 percent white; 27 percent were in schools that were more than half white.

A result of the dearth of white students, together with the clustering, is that almost a third of the city's 683 schools were minority-only last year. The combined enrollment in these 214 schools: 79,292 black children, 3,031 Hispanics, 1,497 Asian/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans—and zero non-Hispanic white kids.

The city's 87 charter schools were also nearly devoid of white students: they were 60 percent black, 35 percent Hispanic, and less than 2 percent white.

Why does the number of white kids in a school matter? In part, because white parents tend to make noise. They're more likely to know an alderman, a school board member, or a reporter, and complain to them about problems in their kids' schools, until the problems are addressed.

The number of white kids also matters because they tend to come from more affluent families. Kids learn a lot from their peers, as research increasingly shows. It's better to be in a classroom with children who are avid readers, for instance—and that's more common in affluent families than in poor ones.

The number of poor kids in a school matters because poor kids are more likely to have problems that strain classrooms. "Many urban children live under unstable home and community circumstances, including homelessness, domestic violence, abuse, and neglect," the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research noted in its 2010 book, Organizing Schools for Improvement. "Such children can make extraordinary demands on teachers. . . .If the number of students presenting substantial needs is too large, even extraordinary teachers can be quickly overwhelmed."

When 87 percent of the students in a school system are low-income, the outlook won't be bright no matter how long the school day or how teachers are assessed. Tens of thousands of Chicago kids are in classrooms whose teachers are overwhelmed. The teachers are often talented and dedicated, but struggling to stay even. Many give up and hunt for jobs in suburban schools. The root problem is segregation.

And the cure, as desegregation experts have been saying for more than two decades, is to think outside the central-city box—that is, to develop attractive regional magnet schools and devise other plans that provide options beyond a city's borders. Encouraging more fair and affordable housing in the suburbs is also essential. The number of poor minority students is lopsided in the city, but, as we noted in our story, the school enrollment in Cook County—including Chicago—is nearly equal thirds white, black, and Hispanic. The challenge is to use that great potential for diversity to make more individual schools diverse throughout Chicago and its suburbs.

Or we can simply continue to offer a multitude of separate and unequal schools that masterfully prepare children for separate and unequal lives.

Steve Bogira writes about segregation every Thursday.

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