Race and equity

Here’s some advice for CPS’ future Chief Equity Officer in year one

PHOTO: Bettmann/Getty Images
A third grade class recites the "Pledge of Allegiance" at Franklin Elementary School, which is now Franklin Fine Arts Academy, in September 1963

When a small group of central office staff met earlier this year at Chicago Public Schools headquarters to discuss a grant, the conversation went from how the district could support students’ social and emotional development to a bigger discussion about the world children are growing up in. CPS CEO Janice Jackson said the talks inside district headquarters at 42 W. Madison St.  soon “blossomed into a full blown commitment around race and equity.” 

On Wednesday, the Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote on CPS’ 2018-19 budget, which lists a new four-person Office of Equity as a $1 million line item. The board also plans to vote on a proposed revision to its student code of conduct to help address racial disparities in suspensions.

Equity officers are a small but growing cadre of school administrators working on diversity and inclusion. Districts in Los Angeles and New York don’t yet have a cabinet-level official who reports directly to the schools chief. But smaller urban districts like Jefferson County Public Schools, in Kentucky, and the Oakland Unified School District, have been doing the work for years.

“This is a good start, we’re excited about the direction we’re going in,” Jackson said.

In a racially equitable school, all students would get what they need to be successful, and race wouldn’t predict any child’s success or outcome. But how does a chief equity officer go about digging out so many deep-rooted problems at CPS?

In Chicago, one of America’s most diverse — and segregated — cities, few institutions illustrate racial inequity like the public school system. About 90 percent of CPS students are of color, but half of all teachers are white. White students, most of whom live on the North Side, comprise just 10 percent of students but are nearly all clustered at top rated schools (Level 1+ and Level 1). Black and Latino students, who are concentrated on the city’s South and West sides, also trail their white peers when it comes to test scores and college readiness.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This chart shows the “racial achievement gap” or “opportunity gap” in composite state standardized test scores.

The consequences of racial inequity in schools can follow students their entire lives. Jackson knows that all too well. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago, graduated from public schools, and returned as a teacher and principal.  

Now chief of the district, Jackson said the equity chief’s primary focus in year one would be bridging gaps in test scores between black and Latino students and their white peers.  “All tides are rising,” she said, citing academic growth at the district, “but the achievement gap still exists.” And while she said it’s too early to pinpoint every equity goal and standard, Jackson detailed some initiatives the new official would work on, starting with diversifying CPS’ workforce, ensuring resources are distributed equitably across the district, and supporting CPS efforts to award more contracts to minority- and woman-owned businesses.

To better understand what a chief equity office could look like, Chalkbeat interviewed school equity experts in several areas. While no school district has eradicated the problem, a savvy equity chief is starting to make a major difference in some cities.

Lessons from the Bluegrass State

PHOTO: Abdul Sharif
Chief Equity Officer John Marshall with students at Mill Creek Elementary’s student Leadership Academy convocation.

John Marshall grew up in a family of educators and attended failing schools in Louisville, Kentucky. After a high school suspension he felt was unfair, he vowed at a school disciplinary hearing to one day change the school system from the inside. Today, he’s the chief equity officer at Jefferson County Schools, which encompasses Louisville and is Kentucky’s largest district with more than 100,000 students, about 46 percent white and 37 percent African-American.

He said that a $3.6 million budget his office assesses the practices, policies, and behaviors of the school system, with a focus on access to academic programs, teacher recruitment, discipline and student achievement. He has spearheaded the creation of an equity institute to train employees and provide professional development. Last year, the school board approved creating a school for men of color with lessons taught “from an Afrocentric lens,” rather than the Eurocentric instruction prevalent at many American schools.

Marshall has some tips for CPS CEO Jackson as she seeks a chief equity officer: choose somebody who is organized, data-driven, research focused, and who understands the business of public education. That means not just hiring a bureaucrat, business person, or political operative — but snagging a candidate with experience teaching at and leading schools.

It’s also important to hire a person who can build bridges between the administration and community groups and enlist help in building momentum for racial equity work.  And, he said, it wouldn’t hurt to have candidates who have experience in the same school district they hope to improve.

“Do you need them to be from Chi-Town? Not really, but it’s helped me being from Kentucky,” he said.

One of the most vital qualities a chief equity officer should have, Marshall said, is a deep understanding of race and history. Tackling racial inequity means wrestling with the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and racial discrimination.

“What [equity officers] have to do is look at the system as not broken,” Marshall said, “but as doing what it’s created to do.”

Year one: a scorecard

When Marshall was hired in 2012, he said he focused on creating an equity scorecard loaded with critical data that grades the district via four metrics: literacy, college-and-career readiness, school climate and culture, and discipline. He said the data has helped focus the community conversation and strengthened efforts to improve outcomes for certain students. For example: The district saw some increases in the number of low-income students considered to be college and career ready between 2013 and 2016.

The data-laden equity scorecard has been a powerful guide in other ways, too.

For instance, Marshall said that his office recognized that students of color were being suspended at a disproportionately high rate. He worked with community groups to come up with a remedy, redefining the categories of conduct that were generating suspensions, namely, disruptive behavior. “This subjective infraction was being given to black males of color in alarming and disproportionate ways,” he said.

The disparities in discipline he mentioned are also a problem in Chicago. While the district has revised its suspensions policy and seen a steep decline since 2012, black boys are still the most likely to be suspended.

But none of this will work if the people who run schools can’t speak honestly about race. Lee Teitel runs a program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education that sends graduate students into schools to coach teachers and administrators on issues around race and equity. The students report back that it’s challenging, Teitel said. The problem is that it’s hard for some people to confront their personal issues with race — and comprehend the impact racism has across institutions like public schools. That’s the sort of education an equity chief must bring to school communities, networks, and central offices.

“You’ve got to change attitudes and beliefs, and you also have to give people the tools to do that, because dismantling racism in the schools is just as hard as it is dismantling it in the larger society,” Teitel said.

Listening tours

Christopher Chatmon, deputy chief of equity for the Oakland Unified School District, has his own advice for Chicago’s equity officer. Do a listening tour that spans anywhere from six months to a year, and interview students, parents, teachers, principals, central office staff, school board members, and community organizations.

That’s what Chatmon did after his office opened in 2016. It grew out of the district’s Office of African-American Male Achievement, which he helped found in 2010. Chatmon previously had worked as a principal at an alternative school in San Francisco and served executive director of Urban Services at the Oakland YMCA. Oakland Unified serves about 50,000 students and is 46 percent Latino, 24 percent black, 13 percent Asian, and 10 percent white.

“As we began to go deep into the work, we realized the evolution of that work would have more legs and tentacles,” Chatmon said. “We began to see that not only do we need targeted strategies for black boys as  way to elevate access and performance, we also could benefit from having differentiated and targeted strategies for Latinos, Latinas, indigenous students, Asian and Pacific Islander students.”

In his first year, he drafted an equity policy that declared the district’s commitment to identifying and eliminating racial bias, and outlined ways to reach that goal. Now, his office is laying the groundwork for the plan and thinking through teaching and learning, professional development and curriculum (“the content is still extraordinarily Eurocentric,” he said), teacher recruitment and retention, parent engagement, budgeting, and social-emotional supports for children.

He has about 20 staff, including researchers and data analysts. In a district budget of about $780 million, his office has a $2.1 million slice.

The office spends money on outreach to parents, students, other community engagement events, and training teachers. The office also works on “narrative change,” sharing the stories of diverse students via newsletter, and informing people about accomplishments made by the office.

It’s a subtle way to counteract negative narratives about students of color, LGBTQ students and other marginalized people, Chatmon said. It also lets the public know the district’s values and keeps people abreast of its work.

“Otherwise,” he said, “you can be doing good work but it gets either suppressed or it doesn’t get lifted up.”

“CPS is stepping up”

Chicago’s equity officer won’t have an easy job. This new hire will step into several heated debates around racial equity, especially how CPS plans to spend $1 billion on improving school facilities, adding annexes, and shiny new buildings. He or she will also have to address teacher pipeline issues: The racial makeup of CPS’ teacher workforce doesn’t reflect the student population or that of the city as a whole. 

Source: Chicago Public Schools

A recent WBEZ analysis found CPS’ proposed capital budget invests disproportionately more in buildings serving significant white populations and schools on the north side. And Chalkbeat Chicago reported last week that the proposal shows a skew toward investments in and near high-growth, gentrifying areas of the city. Critics are inflamed by what they say is the lack of an intelligent, fair or transparent process for prioritizing community needs.

At capital budget hearings last week, residents had mixed feelings about how CPS is allocating resources. Some applauded the district, while others cried out for more help.

Jackson said the district already has laid some equity groundwork, such as the Great Expectations Mentor Program, which grooms African-American men and Latinos interested in senior leadership roles at CPS. She also mentioned investments in under-enrolled schools, which tend to be in black communities that have been losing population.

“CPS is stepping up and and saying this is important, and while we have always prioritized equity, it’s important to have a cabinet level official [focused on equity],” Jackson said.

Even if Chicago’s chief equity officer transforms schools, public education is only one expression of racial inequity. Marshall, in Kentucky, emphasized that fixing a school system doesn’t change discrimination in banking, criminal justice, or housing. That doesn’t mean equity chiefs should throw their hands up in resignation. On the contrary, he said they should sit on anti-gun violence panels, address laws that perpetuate mass incarceration, and tie these issues back to schools, especially the school-to-prison pipeline.

“A school system is one link in the chain of change,” he said.

School choice

Secret CPS report spotlights big vacancies, lopsided options for students

The school district says the report will help inform how it invests in and engages with communities. Communities groups worry the document will be used to justify more school closings, turnarounds and charters.

An unreleased report by a school choice group backed by the business community paints in stark detail what many Chicagoans have known for years: that top academic schools are clustered in wealthier neighborhoods, and that fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools.

The report highlights startling figures: About 27 percent of black students are in the district’s lowest-rated schools, compared with 8 percent of Latino students and 3 percent of whites. It also says that while Chicago Public Schools has more than 150,000 unfilled seats, 40 percent, or 60,000 of them, are at top-ranked schools. That surplus will grow as enrollment, which has been plummeting for years, is projected to decline further by 5.1 percent over the next three years. What that means is the cash-strapped district is moving toward having nearly one extra seat for every two of its students.

The document effectively shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

In a city still reeling from the largest mass school closure in U.S. history, this report could lay groundwork for another round of  difficult decisions.

The “Annual Regional Analysis” report, compiled by the group Kids First Chicago on CPS’ behalf, has been circulating among select community groups but has not been made public. It comes on the heels of a report showing students’ high school preferences vary with family income level. Students from low-income neighborhoods submit more applications than students from wealthier ones and apply in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools.

The group behind the latest report has had many iterations: Kids First is a new name, but its origins date back to 2004, when it started as the charter fundraising group Renaissance Schools Fund. That was during the Renaissance 2010 effort, which seeded 100 new schools across the city, including many charters. The group changed its name to New Schools Chicago in 2011 and again rebranded this year as Kids First, with a greater focus on parent engagement and policy advocacy.

The report has caused a stir among some community groups who’ve seen it. Because the school district has used enrollment figures to justify closing schools, some people are worried it could be used to propose more closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

“To me this is the new reason [for school closings],” said Carolina Gaeta, co-director of community group Blocks Together, which supports neighborhood schools. “Before it was academics, then it was utilization, now it’s going to be access and equity. Numbers can be used any way.”

In a statement on the report, Chicago Teachers Union Spokeswoman Christine Geovanis blasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration for policies that she alleged “undermine enrollment at neighborhood schools,” such as the proliferation of charter schools, school budget cuts, and building new schools over the objection of community members.

Reached by phone Thursday, Kids First CEO Daniel Anello confirmed that his organization helped put the report together, but declined to comment on its contents, deferring to the district. CPS Spokeswoman Emily Bolton acknowledged the report’s existence in a statement emailed to Chalkbeat Chicago that said the school district “is having conversations with communities to get input and inform decisions” about where to place particular academic programs. The statement said CPS is still in the process of drafting a final version of the document, but gave no timetable. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office didn’t grant requests for interviews about the Annual Regional Analysis.

Below is a preview of the report provided to Chalkbeat Chicago.

Gaps in access to arts and IB programs

Data released this week from the district’s GoCPS universal high school application clearly shows what academic programs are most in demand: selective enrollment programs that require children to test in;  arts programs; and career and technical education offerings, or CTE.

The Kids First’s analysis puts those findings into context, however, by detailing how supply is geographically uneven, especially when it comes to arts. Maps in the report divide the city into regions defined by the city’s planning department and show how highly-desirable arts programs are not spread equally throughout the city, and are most concentrated along the northern lakefront and downtown.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of fine & performing arts program seats available per 100 elementary school students in each planning area.

Worse, four regions offer 10 or fewer arts seats per 100 students, including the Bronzeville/South Lakefront region that includes neighborhoods such as South Shore, Woodlawn, Kenwood and Hyde Park. They are also scarce in the West Side region, which includes Austin, North Lawndale, and Humboldt Park and in the Northwest neighborhoods of Belmont Cragin, Dunning, and Portage Park.

The report also shows an imbalance in the number of rigorous International Baccalaureate programs.

This map shows the number of IB program seats per 100 students available to elementary and high school students in each planning area.

The highest number of IB seats are in the wealthy, predominately white Lincoln Park area. In contrast, there are far fewer IB seats in predominantly black communities such as  Englewood and Auburn Gresham, Ashburn and in the predominantly Latino Back of the Yards.

When it comes to selective-enrollment elementary school programs such as gifted centers and classical schools, which require students to pass entrance exams, options tend to be concentrated, too, with fewer choices on the South and West sides of the city. This map shows where selective enrollment high school options are most prevalent:

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of selective enrollment high school seats available per 100 students in the city’s planning regions.

STEM programs are more evenly distributed across Chicago than both IB and selective enrollment schools, yet whole swaths of the city lack them, especially on the South Side, including the Greater Stony Island. As the other maps show, that region lacks most of the high-demand academic programs the district has to offer.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of STEM program seats available per 100 elementary school students.

Racial disparities in school quality

The analysis also shows disparities in quality of schools, not just variety.

At CPS, 65 percent of students districtwide are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools. But only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.

The disparities are even more severe given that the school district is mostly Latino and black, with fewer than one in 10 students identified as white. 

A page from a presentation of the Annual Regional Analysis showed to select community groups.

In the Greater Lincoln Park region, 100 percent of elementary schools have one of the top two ratings — the highest concentration of them in the city.  The highest concentration of top-rated high school seats, 91 percent, is in the Central Area, which includes Downtown and the South Loop.

The lowest concentration of top-rated elementary seats, 35 percent, is in the Near West Side region, and the lowest concentration of high school seats, 14 percent, is in the West Side region.

Long commutes from some neighborhoods

The number of students choosing schools outside their neighborhood boundaries has increased in recent years.

But the report shows that school choice varies by race: 44 percent of black students attend their neighborhood elementary school, compared with 67 percent of Latino students, 69 percent of white students, and 66 percent of Asian students. For high schoolers, only 14 percent of black students attend their neighborhood school, compared with 28 percent of Asians, 30 percent of Latinos, and 32 percent of whites.

More students enrolling outside their neighborhood attendance boundaries means more and more students have longer commutes, but how far they travel depends on their address. 

Again, this is an area where the Greater Stony Island area stands out.

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far elementary school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

The average distance traveled for elementary school students is 1.5 miles — but K-8 students in Greater Stony Island travel an average of 2.6 miles. The average distance to class for high schoolers citywide is 2.6 miles, but students in the Greater Stony Island region travel an average of 5 miles, about twice the city average. 

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far high school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

Looking forward

The introduction to the Annual Regional Analysis describes it as “a common fact base” to understand the school landscape. It clearly states the intent of the report is to assist with district planning, not to provide recommendations.

It still bothers Wendy Katten, founder of Raise Your Hand, who has seen the report and said it tells little about how kids are actually learning at schools.

“It sounds like some data a company would use to reduce inventory at a manufacturing plant,” she said.

Gaete with Blocks Together said the numbers in the report are also missing important context about how the proliferation of charter schools, a lack of transparent and equitable planning, and a lack of support for neighborhood schools in recent decades has exacerbated school quality disparities across race and neighborhoods in Chicago, one of the nation’s most diverse but segregated cities.

It’s unclear when the final study will be published, or how exactly the school district will use its contents to inform its decisions and conversations with communities.

But an event posting on the website for Forefront, a membership association for “nonprofits, grantmakers, public agencies, advisors, and our allies,” mentions a briefing for the report on Oct. 10.

Kids First Chicago CEO Dan Anello and CPS Director of Strategy Sadie Stockdale Jefferson will share the report there, according to the website.

Q and A

In a wide-ranging interview, Carranza takes issue with admissions to New York City’s gifted programs

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Since becoming schools chancellor, Richard Carranza has questioned city admissions methods that critics say exacerbate segregation. Here, he speaks to a crowd at a town hall about school diversity.

Ever since the city launched a push to scrap the entrance exam for its vaunted specialized high schools, Chancellor Richard Carranza has made it clear that he doesn’t believe a single test should be used to make school admissions decisions.

In an exclusive back-to-school interview with Chalkbeat on Friday, he said that also goes for the city’s gifted and talented programs.

Just like specialized high schools, gifted programs are deeply segregated. Only 22 percent of students in gifted programs are black or Hispanic, compared with 70 percent citywide. And just like specialized high schools, admission to most of the city’s gifted programs hinges solely on the results of an exam.

“I think that’s not a good idea,” Carranza said. “When you look at the disparities in representation across this system, you have to ask the question, ‘Do we have the right way of assessing and making decisions about students?’”

Most students enter gifted programs when they’re in kindergarten, so they are only 4 years old when they take the test — an approach that Carranza questioned.

“There is no body of knowledge that I know of that has pointed to the fact that you can give a test to a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old and determine if they’re gifted,” he said. “Those tests — and it’s pretty clear — are more a measure of the privilege of a child’s home than true giftedness.”

A full transcript of our interview with the chancellor is coming soon. We’ll have interesting insights about Carranza’s relationship with his predecessor, what he thinks about the city’s Renewal turnaround program now that he’s had time to get to know it better, and the problems he’s trying to solve with a recent bureaucratic overhaul. Here are some highlights to hold you over until then.

Why few schools may get shuttered under Carranza’s leadership — even though he’s ‘not scared’ of closures

In one of his very first moves as chancellor, Carranza spared a storied Harlem school that was slated for closure. Since then, he has shaken up the school’s leadership, initiated new partnerships, and brought in a different support structure.

It’s just one example, but it could be a hint of what’s to come during Carranza’s tenure.

The school that won the reprieve is a part of the mayor’s high profile Renewal program, which aims to boost student learning by offering social services and a longer school day. The program has shown mixed results, at best, and many Renewal schools have been shuttered after failing to make progress. 

Carranza indicated there could be more closures ahead: “Let me be clear: I’m not scared of closing a school if it’s not serving the needs of the students,” he said.

But he added: “My experience — nine times out of 10 — has been that we haven’t done all we can do to give schools that are struggling to improve the right conditions, the right resources and the right support to actually improve.”

Did Carranza push City Hall to do something about segregation at specialized high schools?

City Hall has indicated that its plans to overhaul admissions at the city’s vaunted specialized high schools had been in the works for some time. Indeed, de Blasio promised to do something about the stark underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students at the schools during his first run for mayor.

Carranza wouldn’t reveal much about what happened behind the scenes in the lead-up to the city’s June announcement that officials would lobby to scrap the exam that serves as the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The chancellor said he brought up the issue in his talks with the mayor before coming onboard, and said his boss shared the same vision.

“I can tell you the mayor is passionate about making sure that our schools are just as diverse as our city,” Carranza said.

Asked whether he personally played a role in the decision, Carranza would only say that the mayor “knew what he was getting,” when he was tapped to be chancellor.

He later added: “One of the things that I appreciate is, that what the mayor hired was an educator to be the chancellor, and he lets me do my job.”

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.