North Side students face tougher admission to selective Chicago high schools

Audrey Cheng

Decision letters for selective-enrollment Chicago high schools were sent out Monday, and some North Side middle school students received rejections they weren’t expecting.

The new admission policy Chicago Public Schools enacted in 2010 may have contributed to those reactions. It requires selective-enrollment high schools to accept a certain percentage of students from each of the four socioeconomic tiers in the city.

Data from the 2010 census showed gentrification of some North Side neighborhoods, driving them into Tier 4 – the most competitive group with the highest number of students vying for spots in Chicago selective enrollment schools. Those schools include Northside College Prep, Whitney M. Young Magnet High School and Walter Payton College Prep.

This year, CPS reserved 30 percent of enrollment spots for students with top scores on the ISAT, a state test used for admission, regardless of their tier status. Last year, that number was 40 percent.

The remaining seats are divided among four different “tiers” of neighborhoods. Tier rankings are based on the neighborhood’s average socioeconomic profile, and each tier receives an equal number of seats.

“The socioeconomic tier system was created to promote socioeconomic diversity within schools,” a Chicago Public Schools representative wrote in an email to THE DAILY on Tuesday. The representative added that social and economic factors correlate to educational achievement.

Communication junior Veronica Nieves, who graduated from Walter Payton, said she was surprised her 14-year-old sister, Vivianna, was recently denied acceptance from the school, located at 1034 N. Wells. The Nieves family lives in Avondale, a northwest Chicago neighborhood.

Nieves said she does not think the application process should include the location of where a student is from because geography is not a measure of intelligence.

“Way back then, it wasn’t as super selective,” Nieves said. “It’s getting more selective. Now if I were to be applying to high school, I probably wouldn’t have gotten in.”

Nieves added that she and her sister were both in the seventh and eigthth grade accelerated program at Taft Middle School, which prepared students for selective enrollment high schools. Walter Payton is definitely not a neighborhood school, she said.

“The classes are mainly honors and you learn at a more accelerated pace than many neighborhood schools,” Nieves said.

Nieves said she does not think the new tier system is as effective as Chicago Public Schools hoped it would be.

“Ideally, they’re trying to gauge a better population of students or a different population of students,” Nieves said. “However, the way they went about it doesn’t show in the outcome.”

But not all students from Tier 4 neighborhoods have Chicago selective enrollment high schools on their radar.

Weinberg junior Lauren Cantacessi, who attended Walter Payton, said that in her residential area of Portage Park, it is extremely uncommon to attend selective enrollment high schools or highly selective colleges. Cantacessi said despite her neighborhood falling in Tier 4, inequality still pervades it.

“While we may have more monetary resources than the South Side, it’s still not expected that people go to Northwestern from my neighborhood,” Cantacessi said. “I’m an anomaly.”

Cantacessi said while the tier system attempts to solve socioeconomic problems, it underestimates the differences in Chicago communities.

“They just established an arbitrary line as a separation line between Tier 3 and Tier 4,” Cantacessi said. “Within those communities, there are students who have beautiful homes and wealthy communities. There are students who are on government aid. It’s an oversimplification.”

Cantacessi added that she supports the school system’s attempt to address socioeconomic inequalities but maintained the new tier system is not a good solution to the problem.

“The inequity here is overwhelming because if you didn’t have a friend, parent or sibling who told you that applications existed, you wouldn’t even have known you could have applied to a selective high school in Chicago,” Cantacessi said. “If you didn’t have grammar school that had after-school programs, you wouldn’t have gotten in. If you didn’t have money to take the bus or the train to my high school, you wouldn’t have gotten into my school.”

Cantacessi said when she was applying to high school, the admissions officers didn’t just look at test scores, but also deducted two points for every day students were absent in seventh grade. With the new tier system, students have to list on their applications extracurriculars in which they participated.

“If your grammar school didn’t have student clubs or service clubs, then you were kind of off because you had to write down how active you were or how involved you were outside of school,” Cantacessi said. “It was really reminiscent of college applications. It was stressful.”

She added that performance comparisons made with other students in the admissions process were disconcerting.

“I was as happy as I was when I got into Northwestern as when I got into Walter Payton,” Cantacessi said.

She said she would not have been accepted to Northwestern if she didn’t go to Walter Payton.

“Looking at the stats from my local school, the ACT mean score is 16,” Cantacessi said. “The mean score for the ACT at Walter Payton is 28. It’s just such a different environment.”

Cantacessi said Walter Payton also has a more diverse student body, as her local high school, Schurz High School, 3601 N. Milwaukee Ave., has a predominantly Hispanic population. Most students in Portage Park attend Schurz, she said.

Another notable difference between the two schools is their emphasis on higher education, Cantacessi said, adding Walter Payton had teachers who prepared her for college.

“Saying it’s a
college prep school is not exaggerating,” Cantacessi said. “We all went to a good college. It was expected.”

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