The persistent problem of segregation in Chicago's public schools - Metropolitan Planning Council

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The persistent problem of segregation in Chicago's public schools

Flickr user Kenneth Spencer (CC)

At Alexander Graham Elementary on the south side, no single racial or ethnic group has comprised more than 60 percent of the student population since at least 2001-2002.

In many ways, Chicago’s public schools haven’t changed much in nearly 60 years.

Despite a landmark Supreme Court desegregation ruling in 1954, mass demonstrations by black parents in the 1960s and a federal desegregation consent decree from 1980 to 2009, the racial inequities and segregation that plagued the city’s public schools six decades ago remain today.

As part of its Cost of Segregation project, the Metropolitan Planning Council is exploring the relationship between segregation and education. Our end goal is to provide recommendations that will help reduce the negative effects of racial and economic segregation in the short-term, as well as move us toward a more integrated education system in the future. While the study is regional, for this segment of our work we focused on the city of Chicago.

To do this, we need to understand the current status of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in terms of racial and economic demographics and academic performance. This has led us down two paths of exploration:

  • Which Chicago public schools have been able to maintain a level of racial diversity (student body with no more than 60 percent of one race) over time? Which schools have never been diverse? Which schools have gained or lost diversity over time? What is helping diverse schools maintain their diversity, and what keeps some schools highly segregated?
  • Of the many Chicago public schools with majority low-income students and students of color, which schools have improved over time and are now performing well, and which have not? What are the strategies and policies that are supporting these schools, and what is making it more challenging for them?

In order to find out which district-run neighborhood schools have sustained racial diversity, we assembled CPS demographic data for each school in the system dating back to the 2001-2002 school year. While 82 percent of all CPS schools were not diverse in 2015-2016, more than 72 percent—489 of 676 schools, in all—had never been diverse since 2001-2002 (meaning they’ve always had a single racial group comprise more than 60 percent of the student population).

We also identified 65 schools that had been diverse but no longer were, as well as 48 schools that had become diverse after a period when they weren’t. Just 74 schools have always been diverse.

A map of the schools by these designations paints a stark picture. Schools that have never been diverse are shown in red; schools that have lost diversity are shown in yellow; schools that have gained diversity are shown in green; and schools that have always been diverse are shown in blue. The map shows segregated schools in black communities on the city’s south and west sides; segregated schools in Latino communities on the city’s northwest and southwest sides; and a smattering of schools that have always been diverse in white or racially mixed communities mostly on the city’s north and far northwest sides.

But a closer look at the schools that have always been diverse shows that many of them may be the products of citywide attendance boundaries or special programs that might attract diverse populations. CPS data shows that, in 2015-2016, half of the 74 schools that have always been diverse employed citywide boundaries. And of the remaining 37 attendance area schools, 24 of them featured magnet cluster, comprehensive gifted or selective enrollment programs in 2015-2016, according to data from CPS.

Therefore, just 13 CPS neighborhood schools without special programs, a miniscule 6 percent of the 226 such schools in the system, have always been diverse dating back to 2001-2002. The percentages were higher for schools with citywide boundaries or special programs. Among schools with citywide boundaries, 15 percent have always been diverse. And among attendance area schools with special programs, nearly 12 percent have always been diverse.

We decided to narrow our examination on district-run, attendance area schools to witness strategies at play with a general education population from the surrounding neighborhood devoid of any selective factors or programs. Our intention is to strip away the bells and whistles that might affect enrollment to get a clear sense of how decisions and activities happening within the school draw—and keep—a diverse student body.

MPC will examine three of those 13 schools to get a sense of the policies, programs and philosophies they employ to maintain their unique levels of racial diversity, to celebrate different cultures and to encourage an inviting and supportive environment.

MPC will also examine three additional schools for their academic performance. We decided to focus on neighborhood schools primarily serving either black or Latino children for two reasons:

  • They are more common in CPS. About 79 percent of all neighborhood schools are either predominantly black or predominantly Latino. Only 3 percent are predominantly white. These schools represent the stark segregation that exists among our neighborhood schools.
  • They tend to serve more low-income students, who typically have more academic needs.

So, what are we planning to get out of this information? We want to learn more about what is working for the schools that are doing well, what the challenges to their success are, and what policies or strategies MPC can recommend that will help more neighborhood schools perform well within our current system. Further, with a student body that is 90 percent students of color and 85 percent low-income, while we could be doing integration better, we also recognize the current limits. In this context, we shine a light on schools that are performing well against the odds in an effort to both better understand what's working, and to fight perceptions that are often neither fair nor true. 

Ultimately, our hope is that better understanding what's working in schools achieving diversity and high performance will lead to their expansion, and will encourage more economic and racial integration of our schools in the future. 


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For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

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