Chicago public schools: A tale of two schools reflects our economic woes

Two schools, same school district. What makes one more successful? One factor is having a PTA. Photo: Lincoln Elementary School, Chicago all photos courtesy of author

CHICAGO, November 18, 2012 — The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the middle class is on the endangered species list. Wealth becomes more concentrated in the upper echelon, seeing very little reason to share. Why should they? We all had the same opportunities.

Or did we?

A comparison of two Chicago public elementary schools drives home the problems created by, and the self-sustaining nature of, the current division of wealth.

Lincoln Elementary and Salazar Elementary schools are located about two miles away from each other on Chicago’s affluent near-north side. Both schools are part of the same district and have access to the same resources, and deal with the same bureaucracy, provided by the district.

Parent Involvement High At Both Schools

Both Lincoln and Salazar serve kindergarten through eighth-grade students. Parents at both schools value their children’s education, as evidenced by a school/parent contact rate of well over 98%. (Unless otherwise stated, all statistical data was obtained from each school’s Illinois State Board of Education eReport Card.) A high percentage of students at both schools meet or exceed state standards on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT). On a very basic level, the schools are very similar.

Once you move away from that basic level, however, the schools are very different. Lincoln’s fundraising efforts through the years have provided a SmartBoard in every classroom and a cart of laptops on every floor. In addition to art and music instruction, upper-grade students at Lincoln have the option of participating in Lincoln’s band program, receiving instrumental music instruction.

A couple of years ago, Lincoln opened its new greenhouse classroom with its green roof. Lincoln’s PTA supports cultural events for the students as well as lunchtime activities during the cold winter months.

Lincoln Elementary School’s greenhouse

All of these perks (yes, in Chicago Public Schools art and music instruction are considered perks) were supported, if not fully funded, by Lincoln’s fundraising efforts. Lincoln’s PTA and the Friends of Lincoln raised well over $400,000 last year.

Salazar recently asked a former Lincoln parent for fundraising advice. The parent was shocked to learn that Salazar has no PTA. They’re having trouble raising the $300 needed to start one.

How could two schools, similar in so many basic ways and only two miles apart, have such drastically different abilities?

One Big Difference Between the Schools

Lincoln is a neighborhood school, meaning that every student within its attendance boundaries can automatically attend the school. Salazar is a bilingual Options for Knowledge school accepting students from all over Chicago.

In a district where 86.6% of students are classified as low income, Lincoln is only 14% low income. 80.9% of Salazar’s students are from low-income families.

If students at both schools are doing well, according to state standards, though, what difference does it make if one is wealthier?

According to the 2012 eReport Cards, 74.9% of Salazar’s students are meeting or exceeding state standards on the ISAT test. This accomplishment is even more remarkable considering that 40.5% of Salazar’s students have limited proficiency in English. Only 50.9% of Salazar’s third-graders were able to meet the standards in reading, yet the number in seventh grade jumps to 80.9%. Salazar’s students are working hard and succeeding.

Salazar Elementary School

But they can’t compete with Lincoln’s students.

Lincoln’s students are meeting or exceeding state standards by 96%. Their 2012 ISAT scores show that 92.4% of seventh-graders meet or exceed standards in reading and 97.9% in math. (The math number for Salazar’s seventh-graders was 83.3%)

Those seventh-grade reading and math ISAT scores are part of a formula that determines students’ options for high school.

Approximately 14,000 students apply for about 3,500 spots in CPS’ Selective Enrollment High Schools. Competition is fierce and the process, explained on the Chicago Public Schools website, is insane.

Competition is so fierce, in fact, that scoring in the 95th percentile on the ISAT, meaning you scored as high as or higher than 95% of the students taking the test, can knock you out of the top high schools. It may not be enough to get you accepted to, say, Walter Payton College Prep (ranked #2 in Illinois & #41 in the nation by USNews for the ’09-10 school year), which incidentally is located across the street from Salazar.

What Does Equality of Education Really Entail?

So we have students at Salazar (80.9% low income) and Lincoln (14%), and thousands of other schools, vying for those top high school spots. Which students will be more likely to receive private tutoring if their math skills need a brush-up? Which will have the option of taking expensive test prep classes to calm their test-taking nerves? Which school gets more students into Selective Enrollment high schools?

We are all equal. Except when we’re not.

Lincoln is overcrowded, and with two new housing developments going up within its attendance boundaries in the next few years, the problem is going to get worse.

A very vocal faction of Lincoln parents recently sent letters to CPS demanding that CPS build them a separate middle school that will retain Lincoln’s name and leadership. This demand comes as CPS is debating which schools they will have to close to accommodate their budget shortfall. It ain’t happening, people. Get over it.

The option this faction refuses to consider is adjusting Lincoln’s attendance boundaries and creating a second kindergarten-through-eighth school in a pre-existing facility. Reducing the boundaries would force out families that have invested years in building Lincoln into the amazing school it is.

Officially, there is talk of how important it is to retain Lincoln’s core values and sense of community. Unofficially, there is talk of whose housing values would drop if they were cut out of the school. Interestingly, one of the points brought up by the Keep Lincoln Whole crowd is maintaining the power of that $400,000 fundraising arm. We wouldn’t want that split between two schools, now would we?

Why not?

Who’s to say that Lincoln’s core values and sense of community wouldn’t continue at a second school? Who’s to say there aren’t teachers who would love creating a new school that shares those values?

There are not enough students at Lincoln to fill two schools. In the late 1990’s, Lincoln was under-utilized and had a magnet program that pulled students from other parts of the city to fill its empty seats. Perhaps splitting the boundaries and reinstituting that policy at both schools would give more students from less-affluent neighborhoods access to art and music classes.

But that would mean sharing the power of that $400,000 fundraising arm.

Perhaps this is just another case of “We’ve got ours. Screw you.”

The rich get more, the poor get less. Keep the wealth concentrated. Does any of this sound familiar?

Julia Goralka is thankful for all that Lincoln Elementary gave her children before it became exclusionary. To contact her, see above or leave a comment below.


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Julia Goralka

In addition to her work at The Communities, Julia Goralka is a free-lance novel editor and has served as a volunteer board member or committee member for several local charitable organizations. Prior to writing and editing, Julia was the Division Coordinator for the interest rate derivatives marketing desk at a large financial institution based in Chicago.

Contact Julia Goralka

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