I believe in school choice. But I believe in it like I believe in capitalism or college football. It’s a cool idea and I’m glad it’s around, but it doesn’t always work quite as well as advertised. Capitalism needs regulations and external guardrails to operate in any sustainable, fair way, and college football needs…well, I don’t have room to go into everything wrong with college football. What school choice needs—what Chicago needs—are good, solid neighborhood schools. For starters, this city has many more smart, hardworking students than slots at schools dedicated to the highest academic achievers, like Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) selective-enrollment options. And not every parent has the time or inclination to apply for charter schools and other programs. That culling of the most driven and successful into selective schools has a downside anyway:
When academically struggling students are in the mix with kids who have done better, they do better too. Plus there is value in a child going to the same school her mom attended, or the crowd at the neighborhood’s team big game or neighbors getting to know each other at 3 o’clock pick-up. Urban planners call it
social cohesion, and it’s essential glue for a healthy community. Here in Chicago, talk of neighborhood schools is generally focused in parts of the South and West Sides where activists fight for their local schools in the face of declining enrollment, poor performance and the lure of new charter schools. They understand what it means for a school to be a neighborhood institution. But neighborhood schools are just as important in more affluent communities. My son and daughter spent their entire K-8 years at a CPS neighborhood school in Roscoe Village on the North Side. For more than a decade I’ve seen parents forge friendships and work side-by-side to support it. It’s undoubtedly made the neighborhood a better place to live. Full disclosure: We don’t live in Roscoe Village. My son went to the school’s tuition-based pre-K program recommended by a friend who lived nearby. We liked it a lot, and so we stayed. Like I said, I believe in school choice.
[pullquote position="left"]Parents are going to look for every opportunity and advantage they can find for their children. Neighborhood schools can’t just be a good option in the abstract. I know a half dozen Roscoe Village families who have left CPS or even moved out of the city because they were unwilling to fight through the high school selective-enrollment process. That might be infuriating to hear for families in other parts of the city with even fewer choice, but it’s a variable in Chicago’s school equation. It’s not good for the schools or the city tax base to be losing middle-class households that are heavily invested in their kids’ education.
Build the Neighborhood Schools and Build Their Brand
So, good neighborhood schools promote equity, build community, offer unique educational advantages and can help retain highly resourced families. Yet they’re an increasingly endangered species in CPS. What will it take to bring them back? I’ve got four ideas:
Differentiate instruction: There is a vicious circle when students with high GPAs avoid a school, making it even less attractive for the next class. If a neighborhood school is going to be a lively, viable entity in a choice ecosystem, it must have rigorous programs so parents are assured their children will be prepared for the next stage of education.
Bring in resources: Keeping a critical mass of families who want to be at the school isn’t just the classes. Is there a high school newspaper? Does an elementary school have band? To be competitive, a school needs to consider all the factors that make it attractive—and have the fiscal resources to offer those opportunities.
Prize the personnel: Schools succeed because of their staff. CPS should give neighborhood school principals the training and support to address the unique circumstances of that type of school and ensure the teachers have the professional development, autonomy and resources to excel.
Change the narrative: Students and their families are as susceptible to a “brand” as any other consumer. They want a school they can be proud of, one with a reputation as safe, challenging and interesting. CPS should provide their administrators with technical and financial support to market and communicate their strengths.
Driving my kids to school years ago, I would pass a sign advertising a new housing development. One of the selling points, right up next to the luxury appliances and granite countertops, was the fact that the homes would be inside the Bell Elementary boundary. When they’re strong, neighborhood schools are a powerful asset. Just ask homeowners on the North Shore. CPS’ neighborhood schools can’t be allowed to languish. Instead, let’s make sure they’re a viable option in every Chicago community.
Carl Vogel is the principal of Vogel Editorial, a communications and content consultancy working in the public interest around issues such as public education, economic development, urban planning and health care. He lives on the Northwest Side of Chicago with his wife and their two children, who both attend Chicago Public Schools.