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Alderman warns of 're-segregation' of city's top public high schools

03-27-08 Exterior Walter PaytCollege Prep High School 1034 N. Wells St.  Phoby Chris Sweda/Sun-Times

03-27-08 Exterior of Walter Payton College Prep High School, 1034 N. Wells St. Photo by Chris Sweda/Sun-Times

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Updated: August 17, 2014 6:20AM

African-American aldermen demanded Tuesday that Chicago Public Schools modify admissions standards at its most elite public high schools to stop a surge of white enrollment at the expense of black students.

Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th), chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, said she’s concerned that a federal judge’s 2009 decision to vacate a desegregation consent decree has slowly resulted in “re-segregation” of the city schools.

“Any time you’re talking about racial diversity in schools or anywhere, you’ve got to have race as part of the standard. That’s my opinion. I haven’t heard anything to change my mind,” Thomas said during a City Council hearing on the issue.

“Now that you’ve taken race out for four years and saw [the adverse impact], race can be one of the factors. Before, it was one of two factors. Now, race can be one of six or maybe seven factors you use, so it’s not weighted as heavily as it was before. Your legal consultants should be exploring that with the idea that, when you took race out, we were falling backward.”

Katie Ellis, executive director of the CPS Office of Access and Enrollment, replied, “I will certainly bring that up . . . We actually do have our outside law firm doing another landscape [check] to find what they would consider permissible uses of race.”

Ald. Will Burns (4th) agreed that something dramatic needs to be done to address the adverse impact of a tiered admissions system put in place after the desegregation consent decree was vacated.

“The current system does not use race as a factor at all in admissions, yet there are cities that have included race as one of many factors,” Burns said.

“There was concern about whether a system that used race in admissions could withstand scrutiny. I want them to research it. It could be a way to achieve better balance. Minority enrollment is high throughout the system, but it tapers off in schools in certain parts of the city. That’s not what any of us want. Chicagoans value fairness. Chicagoans value diversity.”

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) raised the possibility of doubling — to 10 percent — the discretionary picks afforded to principals at selective enrollment high schools. The so-called “principal pick” once was 10 percent, but was reduced to 5 percent after a clout admissions scandal.

“Have you thought about increasing principal discretion to what it was originally? I’m sure that, by now, you have controls in place to prevent principals from going off the reservation so to speak and being subjects of investigations?” Dowell said.

Ellis said the idea of restoring the 10 percent principal pick “comes up every year,” but there is “a lot of liability” associated with it.

“The challenge of principal discretion is, you’re taking away seats that can be given out through the regular process. . . . If your principal is not aligned with your objectives, they’re not necessarily gonna pick up kids that would solve this problem,” Ellis said.

Three months ago, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that white admissions have been climbing over the last four years at Walter Payton College Prep, Jones College Prep, Northside College Prep and Whitney Young College Prep.

The increase in white freshmen — from 29 to 41 percent at Payton and nearly that much at the other three marquee high schools — coincides with a federal judge’s 2009 decision to lift a 1980 consent decree that had required Chicago Public Schools to be desegregated, including a mandate that no school be more than 35 percent white.

Burns and Dowell were so troubled by the decline, they demanded City Council hearings with an eye toward modifying the controversial “socio-economic criteria” put in place when the consent decree was lifted.

The stakes are high. Emanuel is using $17 million in tax-increment-financing (TIF) funds to add 400 seats to Walter Payton College Prep and another $60 million in TIF money to build a new selective high school for 1,200 students nearby, named after President Barack Obama..


Twitter: @fspielman

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