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Nearly seven years ago, Chicago launched a plan to create 100 new schools. On February 17th, WBEZ released a school-by-school update on how well those “Renaissance 2010” schools are performing on state tests. We compared them to neighborhood schools to ask: has the school district been successful in creating better options for families in those neighborhoods.

In our first story, we talked about elementary schools. Today we turn to the city’s new Renaissance high schools, which are more likely than elementaries to be an improvement over current neighborhood schools. In 65 percent of comparisons we did—the Renaissance high schools performed better.

We report from two new high schools—one that has quickly become the best option in the neighborhood, one that is not beating out even low-performing nearby schools. We start there.

The promise of what a new school can be for a community is felt deeply at Little Village High School, where residents went on a hunger strike to get the school built.

WEIDEN: This is a mural—it was created by students, staff and really represents the values of our school. The mural is called HOPE.

Chicago high schools
Students at Little Village High School. Test scores are not better at the new school than at nearby struggling high schools (Photo by Linda Lutton)

Chad Weiden is principal of Social Justice High School, one of four small schools inside the soaring, sunlit new building. Weiden says the neighborhood wanted a school that would get kids to college—and instill in them a commitment to come back to build up their community.

WEIDEN: They want an institution that just beams from the highway, that this is academic excellence.

Linda Sarate was one of the hunger strikers.

SARATE: What I really wanted was a school that was gonna pay attention to what was going on with the child and not let the children fall through the cracks.

Her son was in the first class of students to attend Little Village High. It still makes her proud to think of that. But he didn’t make it through the school SHE fought to create. She says he missed graduating by a credit and a half.

SARATE: And I feel like my son fell through the cracks. Like there wasn’t enough being pushed, or challenged enough.

In WBEZ’s analysis, the four schools inside Little Village High score about the same or worse as already low- performing schools nearby.

The high schools have other positive things going—attendance rates are good, their first graduates are in college. Students are taught a deep commitment to community. But principal Weiden admits: test scores help kids get into college, and HIS need to improve.

Chicago high schools
Students at Noble Street Charter School’s Pritzker campus, where test scores beat out those at surrounding schools. (Photo by Linda Lutton)

Five miles north is Noble Street Charter School’s Pritzker campus. It’s one of four Noble Street schools opened under Renaissance 2010 for which we have test scores. All four of beat every neighborhood high school around them. In every subject. By a lot.

Noble-Pritzker is housed in the old St. Philomena’s school. Pablo Sierra is principal there.

SIERRA: I would say that we’re like a Catholic school but only stricter. The bell rings, and they start getting demerits. And that’s part of the magic. So we’re very structured, very disciplined. The onus of the learning is on the child. And they gotta be on task and on time.

There’s a singular focus here: college, and the test scores kids need to get there.

With a few exceptions, Chicago essentially has two classes of high schools: the very best in the state—which kids test into. And the worst, which are segregated with poor and minority kids.

Noble Street is pushing students that might otherwise go to those low-performing schools—into a new middle ground.

That sort of accomplishment has people asking what comes next. What do we do with what’s been learned from Renaissance 2010?

Noble Street’s superintendent Michael Milkie says he wants to keep going.

MILKIE: Dozens of high schools. I mean we could run certainly 20, 30, 40 high schools.

Milkie envisions something provocative: having the school district contract out its high schools.

MILKIE: So right now we’re five percent of the high school students attend Noble campuses. We hope that will soon be 10 percent.  I foresee a day where—I hope—where a majority of the students are educated in either Noble campuses or campuses like that at the high school level.

Milkie admits that on average, between 35 and 40 percent of Noble students leave for other schools before hitting senior year. Some say that’s the reason his schools look so successful.

TOZER: The difference isn’t between charters versus publics. The difference is between how you do school.

Steve Tozer is the head of a principal development program at UIC.

TOZER: It’s not magical when high school kids succeed. They’re getting high quality instruction. What we want to say is: What’s going on in those schools and what do we as a district have to do to achieve that?

Tozer says that should be the school district’s post-Renaissance 2010 homework assignment.

Darnell Little contributed analysis. This story, which aired on February 18, 2011, was produced with support from The Hechinger Report. WBEZ thanks IRE, Investigative Reporters and Editors, for valuable assistance with data analysis and presentation.

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  1. I went online just after the stories to see which neighborhood charters were doing how, but was stimied by the lack of a detailed map or addresses for the schools. As a suburbanite I am less familiar with Chi charters. The stories weren’t all that detailed as to locations either and I get that time was a constraint, but more info was needed.
    I read Richard Rodriguez’ book HUNGER OF MEMORY, and it details his opposition to affirmative action, saying it should be needs based rather than color based. How can anyone disagree? Still, though I’m as liberal as most at the Left, I am saddened at the passion for all things of color. Need isn’t just color and the past. Mr Rodriguez errs in his belief that students could get the help he needed in these days. His need for a year of one on one tutoring and parents willing to change home life AND sacrifice for private education AND an English only policy at home are necessities unaffordable to many today. Still, as an NPR story covered a few months ago, it takes parents dedicated to educating their kids from baby stage onward along with dedicated schools to make it all work. We see huge success in many families coming from dire poverty and speaking foreign languages get their kids good education. It can be done and blaming racism or a troubled education system just is not true. Public radio and WBEZ need to realize that color doesn’t mean special treatment, color neutral should be the important factor. To use the old past as reason for continuing failed policies in this age of needed efficiency in government is doomed.
    In sum, though conservatives want privitizing as a goal, as other countries mobilize education to help everyone prosper, we need to reach success not as competing individuals, but as winning teams. Education is the best way to the goal if we work together, schools, parents and students as a group.
    Last, thanks for your time and I hope to hear fewer pieces done on the national news shows and better, more effective detailed stories on 848 and specials.

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