“Good” Schools

I remember everyone asking what I was going to do for pre-school when my kid was two. Honestly, I hadn’t really thought about it. At the time, I was living at home with my parents in the suburbs and commuting into the city for a full-time job that paid me $17 an hour.

The plan was always to move into an apartment, closer to my job. When we were fortunate enough to find a place living in the same building as a friend, it felt like the right move. And while we were one of a few renters on the block, it was a good neighborhood by those imaginary standards set by cost of housing, nearby schools (sometimes) and the fact that it was majority white.

Chicago was transitioning to universal pre-K for three and four year olds, but only at certain schools. You had to apply for a spot and four year olds were considered first. Since we didn’t need pre-school for childcare, I wasn’t that pressed when we didn’t get in.

We put our kid into a cheap park district program that lasted a few hours a week and satisfied our desire for him to be socialized and take direction from another adult.

Pre-school once again loomed over us when he turned four, so again, we went through the process. Unlike K-12, you did not automatically get a spot in your neighborhood school. Which was unfortunate, because ours was one of the better ones. On paper, at least.

Anyway, we got into one that we wanted and then unexpectedly bought a house that September in a completely different neighborhood. I had to start the application process over again and we wound up finding a school about a mile and a half from our house. He was the only non-Black kid in his class and I had a lot of mixed feelings about that, which can only be attributed to veiled racism because would I be wringing my hands if he was in a school with only white kids (I mean, I would, but for different reasons.) Ultimately I came to the conclusion that being “other” within a minority group would probably fare better than being “other” in an entirely white situation. And I would know because the latter is the world *I* grew up in.

Between him starting late, the teacher’s strike, the holidays and eventually, Covid-19, he didn’t end up having a pre-school “experience” anyway.

But now the real pressure was on us. What were we going to do about kindergarten? We were ONE STREET away from being in district for a decent public elementary school. Despite the fact that we didn’t really care all that much about where he went, our kid had displayed a level of intellect that we wanted to support. He’s not a genius and I’d prefer not to use the word “gifted”, but we figured there was nothing to lose if he took the test to see if he could get into a selective enrollment school.

This is how Chicago Public Schools pretend they are about equity. If you don’t like your neighborhood school, you can “choose” another one. You don’t have to take a test for a different neighborhood school, but the likelihood of you getting in if you don’t live within the area are slim. It’s a roll of the dice.

The test is also a roll of the dice. Maybe your kid has separation anxiety. Maybe they don’t test well. Maybe they don’t vibe with the proctor. Maybe they’re having a bad day. WHO KNOWS, THEY ARE FIVE YEARS OLD.

And despite mild effort on my part to find out what was on the test, I didn’t want to lose my mind over it. Besides, I don’t think either me or my partner wanted to do flashcards or develop lesson plans that would give him a leg up.

Anyway, we took him, he went with the proctor without complaint and after some time, came back with very little information about what went on. All we could gather is that he was asked to read some stuff and maybe do some math.

You can apply to up to twenty schools. I applied to twelve. Only so many of them can be selective enrollment. Not to mention, neighborhood schools are also put into categories and are rated. These systems aren’t entirely reliable. Magnet schools are not better than selective enrollment and 1+ schools aren’t necessarily better than a 2 school depending on what’s important to you.

Another school we were interested in was one of two Montessori schools within CPS and it was very close by. Our kid seemed like he would do better in a situation where he had more flexibility and choice. It’s no surprise that this school was rated a 2 because they didn’t focus on tests.

From what I can remember, he took the test in November and we got the results in the spring. Then we had to wait to find out if those scores were good enough to get into any of the selective enrollment schools we applied to. I’d like to emphasize that this is the process for KINDERGARTEN. IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM.

The letter with the scores explains their meaning and how to interpret them. There are two different kinds of selective enrollment schools and from what I understand, one of them teaches one grade ahead and the other two grades ahead. There are also two different types of scores. One is an evaluation of reading and math skills and one leans more towards comprehension i.e. an IQ test. The IQ test is what the school that teaches two grades ahead is looking at and from what we could discern from the letter, our kid would most likely not be getting into one of those.

Now, another thing one might consider when applying to selective enrollment schools is the racial makeup. Since Chicago is extremely segregated, there were only a couple of schools that had a diverse mix of ethnicities. In every other case, it was dominated by one race.

When I was first navigating this insane process, I paid to be a part of what can only be described as a website for white parents trying to figure this all out who were willing to front money for information. I scoured the forums for helpful tips and insights and mostly walked away feeling more frustrated and annoyed. Unsurprisingly, every white parent is trying to get their kid into a handful of selective enrollment schools, all of which are predominantly white. Which if you think about it is telling because white kids do not make up the majority of CPS, not even close. They compared test scores and their spot on the waitlist and many of them had back up plans like private or Catholic school.

Perhaps what is truly maddening is that even if you do not give one shit about what primary school your kid goes to, if you DO give a shit about which high school they end up in, then you have to care about this kindergarten process. Selective enrollment elementary schools are preparing these kids to test well enough to get into the very few selective enrollment high schools. CAN’T WAIT FOR THAT.

Finally the day came when we found out where we were in and out. We got into one other neighborhood school, waitlisted for another and the Montessori and got one offer from a classical selective enrollment school about a 12 minute drive from us. The former was a no-brainer. Is it in a not-so-great neighborhood? Yes. Is my kid the only non-Black kid? Yes. Is my partner the only white parent we’ve seen so far? Yes.

Does any of that outweigh the chance for an excellent education in a caring and supportive environment? No.

The whole point of this post is to shed a sliver of light on the insane process that is navigating CPS. One could argue it’s pretty straightforward: Send your kid to your neighborhood school. But the inequity within the CPS system means there are “good” schools and “bad” schools and most of the time that is dictated by the neighborhood they’re in. Schools get money from property taxes. Property taxes are based on the value of your home. The average home price in the neighborhood where we used to rent, the one with the good CPS school, is $713,000. Get where I’m going with this?

Also, the only reason we’re even in this position is because my kid tested well. We had to count on this barely formed human being to get an education every child deserves.

A lot of my peers all say the same thing: “When I was growing up, you went to the neighborhood school and that was that.” And yeah, that’s true. It was a lot more straightforward. I went to a pretty average school and turned out fine.

I think?

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