Each day, my eighth-grade daughter sheds traits of childhood and morphs more into a young adult. At 5-foot-6, she’s just half-inch shorter than me, often mistaken as my younger sister. We’re even having honest (I hope) conversations about boys. But the toughest discussion we’ve had lately, talks that cause fear and anxiety for us both, is about what high school she will attend. She has high hopes, and I’m trying to gently lower her expectations without massacring her dreams. You see, getting into a top public high school in Chicago is harder than getting into an elite college. The city’s complex, algorithm-based high school application process will leave many more eighth graders in tears than elated come March, when rejection and acceptance letters are sent out.

Are We Talking Ivies?

The selective enrollment high schools are as competitive as Ivy League universities; there are only 11 of them and they have a very small number of available seats with large application pools. Five of these schools rank in the top 10 high schools in Illinois, and three are in the top 100 high schools in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report. In 2011, half of Chicago’s elementary schools sent no one, not even their top students, to the four best high schools, which coincidentally got a third of their students from wealthy private elementary schools, according to a WBEZ report. Today, whites make up 9.4 percent of CPS’ student body, but are between 38 and 48 percent of students at the top public high schools. How can anyone argue that this is fair?

Quality Schools Out of Reach

Instead of providing good schools for a wide variety of kids, CPS is replicating the inequality we’re seeing in higher education, where quality schools are increasingly out of reach for low-income students. The five selective enrollment schools located in predominantly black and brown communities (Brooks, Hancock, King, Lindblom and South Shore) receive few white applicants and virtually no white students. The kids attending these schools don’t usually go to expensive private schools, and while their ACT scores are higher than the district average, they significantly trail that of the top selective enrollment schools. Even with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), my daughter completes academically rigorous assignments, earning A’s and B’s through sheer will and determination. She is an accomplished pianist and a very good singer, but a lousy test taker, which has just about killed her chances of getting into a selective enrollment school, an International Baccalaureate (IB) program, a military school (not that she would want to go) or the Chicago High School for the Arts. ChiArts accepts only 150 students for each grade. I think we have more than 600 artistic kids in the city, don’t you?

Hoping for Options

My daughter’s best hope appears to be various charter schools; she will enter a lottery and hope to get picked. But as a creative kid, she winces at the thought of wearing khaki uniform pants everyday, adhering to an ultra strict discipline code, and being forced to prepare for college by bowing to the god of high-pressured academic competition. Or she can go to her neighborhood school, which is more than two miles away from our South Side home, not the selective enrollment school around the corner. It’s a vocational school that might as well have a police station inside the building to handle all the fights that break out. And while my husband and I make a decent living, we don’t have an extra $15,000 to $25,000 to pay for private school tuition. Between private music lessons and tutoring for her and her 9-year-old sister, plus child care for my toddler son, we’re already paying the equivalent of college tuition. For too long, free access to the city’s top selective enrollment, classical, and magnet schools have been the primary mechanisms to prevent middle- and upper-class white families from fleeing Chicago for the more affluent suburbs—and even that shows signs of deterioration. And while high school options for the rest of the city’s residents have somewhat improved, too many black and brown students in this city aren’t able to “test into” these high-performing public schools. My daughter is one of them. She’s a smart, sincere and delightful young lady who would be an asset to any of these high schools. Thus it will be a crying shame if she can’t get in. The way we admit kids to high school in Chicago absolutely must change.    
Marilyn Rhames has taught in district and charter schools in Chicago for the past 11 years and currently serves as alumni support manager at a K-8 charter school. A former New York City reporter, Rhames’ award-winning education commentary is featured in Education Week and on Moody Radio in Chicago.