Friday, November 13, 2015


Chicago, like most of the country, braces for the impact of concentrated poverty and increasing racial separation.

Ronald Brownstein Editorial Director The National Journal |

Nov 12, 2015  ::  CHICA­GO—In 2014, Amer­ica’s edu­ca­tion sys­tem marked an im­port­ant mile­stone. For the first time ever, chil­dren of col­or be­came a ma­jor­ity among K-12 pub­lic school stu­dents na­tion­wide.

Today schools are cross­ing a second, more troub­ling, bar­ri­er. The latest fig­ures show that 51 per­cent of pub­lic school stu­dents at­tend schools where a ma­jor­ity of their class­mates qual­i­fy as poor or low-in­come un­der fed­er­al guidelines. This deep­en­ing con­cen­tra­tion of eco­nom­ic need com­plic­ates the in­ter­twined chal­lenges of equip­ping Amer­ica’s in­creas­ingly di­verse young people with the edu­ca­tion they need to reach the middle-class and de­vel­op­ing the skilled work­ers the U.S. needs to main­tain its in­ter­na­tion­al com­pet­it­ive­ness. Without pro­gress in ad­dress­ing the harden­ing isol­a­tion of low-in­come fam­il­ies, school re­form alone is un­likely to pro­duce the edu­ca­tion­al res­ults Amer­ica needs.

Two con­ver­ging trends are driv­ing the growth of low-in­come schools. One is the over­all tra­ject­ory of poverty. When Bill Clin­ton left of­fice after 2000, the poverty rate for chil­dren un­der 18 stood just over 16 per­cent. That rose to 19 per­cent un­der George W. Bush and peaked at 22 per­cent un­der Pres­id­ent Obama in 2010. The num­ber has since de­clined only slightly to 21 per­cent; it re­mains about one-third for both Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and Lati­nos.

The second trend is the grow­ing isol­a­tion of poor people. In an im­port­ant pa­per this fall, Cen­tury Found­a­tion schol­ar Richard Kah­len­berg noted that both rich and poor fam­il­ies are more sep­ar­ated from fam­il­ies in oth­er in­come brack­ets today than in 1970. Fig­ures com­piled by the An­nie E. Ca­sey Found­a­tion’s Kids Count pro­ject show that over the past dec­ade, the share of kids liv­ing in neigh­bor­hoods of con­cen­trated poverty (defined as places where at least 30 per­cent of the res­id­ents are poor) has in­creased in most ma­jor cit­ies—for ex­ample, from 25 to 34 per­cent in Los Angeles, 29 to 36 per­cent in Chica­go, and 28 to 38 per­cent in Hou­s­ton.

Be­cause most stu­dents at­tend neigh­bor­hood schools, these in­ter­sect­ing trends have swelled the por­tion of kids in schools that also ex­per­i­ence con­cen­trated eco­nom­ic need. In 1999, only 28 per­cent of pub­lic school stu­dents at­ten­ded schools where most of their class­mates qual­i­fied as poor or low-in­come, mean­ing their fam­il­ies earned less than 185 per­cent of the fed­er­al poverty level, or about $45,000 for a fam­ily of four. (Schools track these fig­ures to de­term­ine which stu­dents are eli­gible for free or re­duced-price school lunches.) The share of stu­dents at­tend­ing ma­jor­ity low-in­come schools has rock­eted to al­most 51 per­cent, roughly 25 mil­lion kids in all, in the most re­cent fed­er­al fig­ures, which cov­ers the 2012-13 school year.

For stu­dents of col­or, the fig­ures are even high­er. Na­tion­wide, about three-fourths of both Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and Latino stu­dents at­tend ma­jor­ity-low in­come schools. By con­trast, only about one-third of whites at­tend such eco­nom­ic­ally strained schools.

In Chica­go, in a school sys­tem where 85 per­cent of stu­dents are either black or Latino, the con­cen­tra­tion of eco­nom­ic need is over­whelm­ing. In 77 of the city’s roughly 680 pub­lic schools, at least 99 per­cent of the stu­dents qual­i­fy as poor or low-in­come. The share tops 90 per­cent in an­oth­er 388 schools. In only 50 schools do less than half of stu­dents qual­i­fy as low-in­come.

“You’re a fourth-grade teach­er and com­ing in­to that door is 30 stu­dents from poverty, broken homes, crime and you are sup­posed to just, on your own, turn that around,” Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel told me at a Next Amer­ica for­um I mod­er­ated here this week. “That’s im­possible.”

In­nov­at­ive and ten­a­cious edu­cat­ors can make pro­gress des­pite these trends. Chica­go has de­veloped a cre­at­ive pro­gram of early in­ter­ven­tion that has dra­mat­ic­ally in­creased high school gradu­ation rates from around 55 per­cent in 2009 to 70 per­cent now, with both Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and Latino stu­dents demon­strat­ing sig­ni­fic­ant gains. Since 2003, the share of the city’s 4th graders who score as “pro­fi­cient” on Na­tion­al As­sess­ment of Edu­ca­tion­al Pro­gress (NAEP) tests has tripled in math and more than doubled in read­ing (though in each case to only around 30 per­cent). At the for­um Gregory Jones, prin­cip­al of Chica­go’s Ken­wood Academy High School, a school where two-thirds of stu­dents are low-in­come, noted that just over half of their gradu­ates now fin­ish with some col­lege cred­it.

Like­wise, across all large cit­ies, Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, His­pan­ic, and low-in­come stu­dents have pos­ted gains in read­ing and math since 2003. But the lar­ger trend is the dur­ab­il­ity of in­come and ra­cial dis­par­it­ies. The latest NAEP res­ults for large cit­ies found that only about one-fifth of stu­dents who qual­i­fied as low-in­come reached the (highest) pro­fi­cient level in 4th grade read­ing or math, com­pared to just over half of more af­flu­ent class­mates in read­ing and nearly three-fifths in math.

It’s fair to de­mand that schools re­think and re­form to en­sure that the in­terests of chil­dren take pre­ced­ence over the pri­or­it­ies of the adults who run the sys­tem. But it’s un­real­ist­ic to ask schools to equal­ize op­por­tun­ity alone, without more ag­gress­ive ef­forts to re­vital­ize poor neigh­bor­hoods and to help more fam­il­ies re­lo­cate to more stable com­munit­ies. Des­pite hero­ic ex­cep­tions, any na­tion­al strategy that hopes to im­prove schools without im­prov­ing neigh­bor­hoods simply won’t add up.

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