Yes, No, Maybe So: The Perils of High School Placement in Chicago

Mar 7, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Marilyn Rhames

A few days ago my family sat down at the dining room table and opened high school acceptance and rejection letters. My 14-year-old daughter had a hard time opening the envelopes because her chewed-off fingernails couldn’t break the seals and her nervous hands couldn’t hold the letters still. Her scores on the nationally-normed, seventh-grade MAP tests were low, landing below the cut scores for most selective enrollment, International Baccalaureate (IB), military and even some College and Technical Education (CTE) programs. Because of that, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) didn’t just discourage her from applying to high-quality schools—it blocked her from even having access to many digital applications. How un-American! In this country, everybody should have the right to pursue their pipe dreams!

Eighth-grade scores don't matter

My kid has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), but I think the death of her beloved grandmother also had a great deal to do with how she scored. We had been traveling to and from New York City to check on grandma and were there attending her funeral when my daughter’s seventh-grade class was taking the MAP. Nothing says “sorry for your loss” like three days of on-and-off computerized testing upon your return to school. My daughter knew the test was important, but her grief ended up selecting most of the wrong answers. There was no place on the high school application to explain this. Two months ago, my girl took the interim assessment again, and her scores rose about 25 percentage points in reading and math jointly. I took the results to the selective enrollment/IB school around the corner from my house as evidence that my child was smart. One of the counselors said bluntly: “CPS only cares about the seventh-grade scores. The eighth-grade scores don’t matter.” Note to self: The seventh-grade spring MAP test has higher stakes than college readiness exams like the ACT and SAT. It’s one and done. No retakes. No exceptions. Well, not exactly. A kid’s test score is a non-issue for charter school admissions, just as is his or her home address. Every child has an equal chance of getting picked in a lottery, if a lottery is even needed. It was a great relief that my child got accepted into a few. Since my daughter’s low test scores in seventh grade trumped her near-perfect attendance, strong work ethic and eighth-grade 3.4 GPA, she could only get into one coveted district school by auditioning for its music program. Her long, skinny fingers play Bach and Chopin on the piano with such brilliance and grace that Lincoln Park High School, which ranks 10th best in the state, made her an offer. What if she had no musical talent? What if her parents had not been able to invest in four years of private music lessons? What if they had never befriended Ruth and Bernard at church and then gone over to their home for dinner during which time their then 13-year-old daughter Rebecca played classical piano so beautifully that my daughter, then 9, begged her parents for piano lessons? If not for music talent and charter schools, what options would my child have? Our neighborhood school? I passed it a few months ago and thought it was abandoned because it has a 9-foot chain link fence with “No Trespassing” signs on it that surrounds a huge section of it. Then I saw a news clip about a viral video showing a teacher there being taunted by a group of students in class. No thank you.

Too Many What-Ifs

Here’s a question that bothers me: What if CPS does not get enough money from the state or city government to fill the projected $1.1 billion budget deficit next year? An active parent from Lincoln Park High School said that the music, arts and drama teachers there would likely be the first to get laid off. I follow the news about the financial crisis in CPS not because it makes for good blog fodder. I cling to every piece of news about whether the teachers are going to strike or the district is going to lay off more teachers—and not just because my school job is at risk. I’m most concerned about the ways in which my kids and the other 400,000 students in CPS would be so negatively affected. Lincoln Park’s music program is fabulous, but only if they will be able to keep their music program…only if my kid will be allowed to go to school, and not be locked out because of a protracted teachers strike. A charter school can provide a bit more cover from the madness of CPS, and my daughter literally won the lottery by securing a seat at Muchin College Prep, one of the highest performing schools in the Noble Network. Its downtown location and academic rigor are attractive features…except it interprets “college prep” as ultra-strict discipline and a strong emphasis on academic competition among students—a practice I fear could suck the life out of my creative kid. We’re also considering Chicago Hope Academy, a Christian college prep school. I love its holistic approach of body, mind and spirit, but the thought of paying high school tuition and daycare for my toddler for the next four years is worrisome. A couple of neighborhood schools with citywide magnet programs will send out their acceptance letters by the end of this month, so we’ll see. With all our ripped envelopes and high school letters spread across the dining room table, my family sat there wondering what to do. The papers contained three times as many noes as yeses, and the dire fiscal condition of the district has turned my daughter’s best offer into an iffy maybe. Welcome to high school in Chicago, kiddo!

Marilyn Rhames

Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” She is currently on the design team for Harvard University's Leaders' Institute for Faith and Education (LIFE). Marilyn has 14 years experience teaching in Chicago Public Schools, but before becoming an educator Marilyn worked as a journalist for People and Time magazines and for newspapers including New York Newsday and The Journal News. She currently writes for Education Post and has published pieces in the Huffington Post, Black Enterprise and RealClearEducation. Marilyn was named 2013 Commentator/Blogger of the Year by the Bammy Awards for her Education Week blog, entitled “Charting My Own Course." She was a 2016 Surge Institute Fellow and a Teach Plus teaching policy fellow from 2010-1012. Through her consulting firm Rhames Consulting, Marilyn offers a full range of services from education content editing to providing professional development on community engagement to public speaking on issues of faith, race, writing, and education. Marilyn has served as an education commentator on 90.1 FM Moody Radio Chicago; the presenter of a 2013 TEDx talk entitled “Finding the Courage to Voice the Taboo”; and a 2017 speaker at the Yale University Education Leadership Conference. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a master’s degree in education from National Louis University. Marilyn is a wife and mother of three. In August 2017, she came together with more than 40 other African-American parents, students and teachers to talk about the Black experience in America's public schools. These conversations were released as a video series in Getting Real About Education: A Conversation With Black Parents, Teachers and Students.

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