Choosing Catholic Schools: Investigating the Role of the Archdiocese of Chicago in Chicago School Choice
Throughout the country, students are increasingly gaining the opportunity to choose. The boundaries of where one may attend school are blurring in favor of systems of choice that provide students and their parents the authority to elect the school that best fits their conception of a quality education. This presence of and access to multiple schools that grant families a choice in their student’s academic future is defined here as school choice. School choice has been increasing in cities across the country; however, by and large conversations around school choice have been restricted to conversations around increasing options in the public schools.
To be sure, this may in part be due to the question of access. By virtue of their tuition rates and at times exclusive nature, private schools may be prone to being excluded from conversations surrounding school choice. However, just as there are differences amongst publicly funded schools, private schools come in many different forms. One subset of private schools in particular–Catholic Schools–are worth noting, particularly given that some Catholic School systems educate individuals from a plethora of financial means and diverse backgrounds, including non-religious ones.
In addition to having the fourth largest public school system in the United States, Chicago, with its surrounding suburbs, hosts the largest Catholic school system in the country (Archdiocese of Chicago, 2015a, p. 2). As of the 2014-15 school year, the Archdiocese of Chicago ran 239 Catholic schools throughout Chicago and its surrounding suburbs ranging from preschool to 12th grade (Archdiocese of Chicago, 2015b, p. 73, 76); their Catholic schools in Chicago alone enrolled 41,503 students (Archdiocese of Chicago, 2015b, p.78), 10.5% of Chicago Public School’s 396,683 students (Chicago Public Schools, 2016a).
These students stem from a myriad of backgrounds; 56.6% of students are white, 21.32% are Latino, 11.91% are African American, 2.56% are Asian American, and 3.36% are multiracial (Archdiocese of Chicago, 2015a, p. 2). Moreover, not all students are Catholic; in fact, 17% of the overall student population is non-Catholic (Archdiocese of Chicago, 2015b, p. 79). The Archdiocese of Chicago (2015a) attributes this to “the quality of Archdiocesan schools and the positive social values that are integrated into student life” (p. 2). Finally, the Archdiocese of Chicago schools also collaborate with various programs to provide financial assistance (Archdiocese of Chicago, 2015a, p. 2).
However, despite this continual prevalence, academic discourse has largely excluded Catholic schools from school choice scholarship, with the exception of the historical use of voucher programs to access Catholic schools, a subset of school choice that has largely fallen out of favor and consequently rolled back in favor of magnet and charter schools.
Yet these enrollment numbers suggest that the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Catholic schools do play a role in Chicagoans and their neighbors’ school choice decisions. What exactly those decisions and the discussions that precede them look like, however, remains unclear. For this reason, in this paper I hope to investigate the role of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Catholic schools play in the school choice system currently available to Chicago residents, with the goal of inspiring others to address the topic in scholarship to come.
School Choice and Chicago’s Public School
Chicago residents have an increasing number of public schooling options for their children, consisting of magnet and charter schools in addition to their traditional neighborhood schools. While traditionally, the school a child attends has been tied to their address, school choice in Chicago has increased students options by allowing them the opportunity to enroll in schools beyond those dictated by their addresses. As of January of this year, Chicagoans had access to 256 schools with no attendance zones in addition to the 415 schools with attendance boundaries; 130 of these no-zone schools were charters (Richards and Perez, 2016).
While school districts such as those of Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Baltimore, Maryland approach school choice in various ways, Chicago has no formal school choice fair, website or lottery system. Instead, Chicago residents have two avenues by which to apply to public schools other than their designated neighborhood schools.
The first is the Chicago Public School’s Office of Access and Enrollment, which supervises all applications for elementary and high school magnet schools, selective enrollment schools, and military academies, as well as CTE-College and Career Academies and IB Programs at the high school level (CPS Office of Access and Enrollment, 2016). The application process differs for each subcategory and between elementary and high school levels; the entrance policies used include computerized lotteries, point systems, and entrance exams.
For the remaining publically funded schools–charter and contract schools–parents and students must apply directly through the schools themselves, which enroll through a randomized lottery (Chicago Public Schools, 2016b; Chicago Public Schools, 2016c). While not under Chicago Public Schools’ direct purview, CPS does provide a list of 59 elementary and 72 high school charters on their website (Chicago Public Schools, 2016d; Chicago Public Schools, 2016e). They additionally profile those high school charters in their High School Guide (Chicago Public Schools, 2015). Figures 1 and 2 summarize the public school choice options for Chicago’s students.
Figure 1. School Choice within Chicago Public Elementary Schools
Figure 2. School Choice within Chicago Public High Schools
While the availability of alternative schooling options does not guarantee their appeal, the data suggests that Chicagoans have largely bought into school choice. To be sure, there is no current data documenting families’ exact schooling decisions, that is to say, what specific schools they are choosing to enroll their students in. Still, in the 2015-16 school year, 51% of CPS students (students enrolled in Chicago public schools) opted out of their assigned neighborhood schools; among high school students specifically, this number jumps to 73% (Hing and Richards, 2016).
To be sure, in addition to an increasing number of public school options, many white students and their parents also also opting out of the public school system altogether. The racial breakdown during the 2013-14 school year for all CPS schools was 9.2% White, 45.2% Hispanic, 39.7% African-American, and 5.9% other (Chicago Tribune, 2016), inconsistent with Chicago’s racial makeup of 45.0% White (31.9% non-Hispanic), 28.9% Hispanic, 32.9% African American and 6.0% other (US Census, 2010). Indeed, data from the previous year shows that white students are opting out of CPS schools at rates much larger than other minorities (Moore 2014).
Figure 3. White students are opting out of CPS schools at higher rates than their African American peers
Private Catholic Schools and School Choice
Given the complex nature of school choice in Chicago, it is important to have a clear understanding of the role private schools and particularly private Catholic schools play in this ever-expanding school choice market. Yet up to this point, Catholic schools have largely been omitted from school choice conversations, with two exceptions. The first is the historical discussion of Catholic schools in academic scholarship around school vouchers. The second is recent media’s attributing declining Catholic school enrollments to increasing public school options.
Thinking Historically: Catholic Schools, School Choice and the Voucher Movement
School vouchers are vouchers provided to families for the equivalent amount as that which would have been allocated for their child at their local public school. This voucher allows families the voice to enroll in a local private school. Unfortunately, vouchers are tied to a negative history, as they were historically used by white families who hoped to evade integration used school vouchers and enrolled their children in Catholic schools (Alexander & Alexander, 2004). Moreover, the diverting of public funds towards private schools, and particularly religious schools, also stirred controversies around a lack of separation between church and state (Americans United, 2016). For that reason, vouchers largely fell out of favor as momentum shifted towards magnet and charter schools.
Nevertheless, Illinois attempted to pass a voucher bill in 2010. Though it fell through, some continued to be optimistic year later that passing a state-approved voucher system would allow parents to access successful private schools, including the Archdiocese of Chicago schools:
This is a school system in which 70 percent of third-graders are proficient in reading and about 73 percent are proficient in math, according to the 2012 TerraNova exams. At the high school level, 95 percent of its graduates enroll in a college or university.
There is an opportunity here.
It’s time to rescue kids trapped in failing and overcrowded neighborhood schools. It’s time for the legislature to take up school choice.
Without a state-approved voucher system, the only way low-income families can access better schools is through the help of nonprofits and scholarships. But the need far outweighs the available resources. (Chicago Tribune, 2014).
Thinking Presently: Catholic Schools, School Choice, Competition and Scandal
Other than conversations surrounding vouchers, Catholic schools have been included in school choice only in so far as increasing public school choice has been linked to decreased Catholic school attendance. Just as neighborhood schools throughout the country are beginning to close and consolidate in favor of an increasing presence of magnet and charter schools, the steady decline of catholic schools in recent years has also been explained to growing competition from the increasing availability of free alternatives to neighborhood schools.
This draw from the outside has also been linked to a diminishing appeal of Catholic schools, particularly as recent years have uncovered the sexual misconducts of priests; indeed, such misconducts have been the focus of recent popular movies including Doubt (2008) and Spotlight (2015).
Questioning the Narrative: The Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools
While the Archdiocese has indeed experienced a steady decline in school enrollment, it remains unclear what the exact causes are. If it were the case that the enrollment decrease has been due to increasing school choice, one would expect to see the greatest losses in areas where school choice has improved and where an increasing number of public school options are now available; that is to say, one would expect the largest decreases in the city. However, a quick look at the data is inconclusive. In the 2014-15 school year, there was indeed a 3.4% decrease in enrollment in Chicago Catholic high schools, compared to a 3.0% decrease in its surrounding Cook County suburbs and 1.2% increase in the handful of schools in the northern Lake County suburbs (Archdiocese of Chicago, 2015b, p. 81). However, at the same time, Chicago Catholic elementary schools experienced a minute decrease of 0.9%, while suburban schools in both Cook and Lake counties experienced much larger decreases of 1.9% and 2.5% (Archdiocese of Chicago, 2015b, p. 80). That suburban schools have just as large, if not larger, decreases brings into question the validity of this simplistic narrative.
Aside from this, however, is the question of alternative explanations for school enrollment decreases. In their Executive Summary, the Archdiocese of Chicago (2015a) points to the role demographic differences may play, as well as to hopes for recent stabilization:
Like many metropolitan Catholic school systems, the greatest challenges faced by the Archdiocese of Chicago are shifting demographics and declining enrollments. According to census data, there are fewer students in Cook and Lake Counties than there were 10 years ago. Despite this statistic, the Archdiocese of Chicago schools have seen an improvement in enrollment results in recent years. From 2005-2009, the system experienced an average decline of 4.2 % of its student population each year. From 2010-2015, the system stabilized to an average decline of 1% per year. The system wide goal is enrollment growth, but the recent stabilization is a sign of hope (p. 2).
Finally, the impact of priest sexual misconducts on parents’ decisions in enrolling their children in the Archdiocese of Chicago’s schools is unclear, as that Archdiocese has been transparent and decisively responsive to all allegations of sexual misconduct (Archdiocese of Chicago, 2016a).
With these points in mind, this paper thus will attempt to illustrate the relationship between the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Catholic Schools and Chicago school choice in two manners. First, it will compare recent trends in the decrease of school enrollment alongside increasing school choice options, in order to confirm or deny their correlation.
Secondly, this paper will attempt to paint a fuller picture of the way the Archdiocese of Chicago’s schools can be thought of as part of the school choice system for, regardless of the date, the narrative thus far perpetuates a very limited view of the relationship between Chicago’s catholic schools and school choice.
Methodology: Investigating the associations between decreasing enrollment in Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools and increasing school choice within Chicago Public Schools
In order to delineate to what extent there exists a correlation between declining enrollment in Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools and increasing school choice within Chicago Public schools, this paper profiles two Archdiocese of Chicago elementary schools, under the assumption that most parents would opt to enroll their children in schools closer to home, while being more willing to allow their high school children to travel across the city.
This paper juxtaposes the changes in student enrollment, calculated from data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics Elementary/Secondary Information System Changes, against an analysis of the quantity and quality of Chicago Public Schools in the surrounding area. The quantity of schools is determined by examining the number of schools located within a 2.5 mile radius of the Archdiocese of Chicago school. As students throughout these schools are tested differently, the quality of schools available cannot be determined by test scores. Instead, this paper turns to school ratings, teacher-student ratios, quality of curriculums and extracurriculars, and reputations.
In particular, this paper looks at the Chicago Public School system’s School Quality Rating Policy (Chicago Public Schools, 2016f). School ratings are updated annually and based on a five point scale that is derived from a series of metrics. Level 1+ signifies that a school is nationally competitive “with the opportunity to share best practices with others” (Chicago Public Schools, 2016f). Level 1 designates a high performing “good school choice with many positive qualities” (Chicago Public Schools, 2016f). Level 2+ is an average performing school needing additional support to implement interventions (Chicago Public Schools, 2016f). Level 2 is a below average school requiring increased support (Chicago Public Schools, 2016f). Finally, a Level 3 school is the lowest performing, needing “intensive intervention” (Chicago Public Schools, 2016f). Figure 4 demonstrates an overview of the SQRP:
Figure 4. An Overview of the Chicago Public School’s School Quality Rating Policy
Results: Two Archdiocese of Chicago School Profiles
School Profile 1: Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts at 1439 W. Wellington Ave
Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Art (AACA) is an Archdiocese of Chicago’s elementary school serving students from 3-year-old pre-kindergarten through 8th grade (Archdiocese of Chicago, 2016b). AACA is located in the city’s North Center neighborhood, north of downtown Chicago.
Figure 5. Map of Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts
School Choice near AACA
AACA specifically lies within the boundaries of Chicago Public School’s Burley Elementary School, which serves prekindergarten through eighth grades and is rated a 1+ on the CPS SQRP (Chicago Public Schools, 2016g). Within a 2.5 radius of AACA there are an additional 35 neighborhood elementary schools (Chicago Public Schools, 2016g), that being schools that service pre-kindergarten or kindergarten through eighth grades. Of these 35 schools, eighteen are rated at 1+, thirteen are rated at 1, one is rated at 2+, and the final three are 2s (Chicago Public Schools, 2016g).
Some of these neighborhood schools are additionally attractive due to their extra programs: one, Mayer Elementary School, has a magnet program, while three others (Alexander Graham Bell School, Coonley Elementary School, and A.N. Pritzker School) have Regional Gifted Centers (Chicago Public Schools, 2016g).
Figure 6. Map of the 49 Elementary and Middle Schools located within 2.5 miles of AACA. There is an additional Selective Enrollment High School beginning at 7th grade not pictured.
Within this 2.5 radius there are also 5 charter schools (four serving kindergarten through eight, another sixth through ninth), a citywide neighborhood, eight citywide magnets, and one selective enrollment school which serves grades seven through twelve (Chicago Public Schools, 2016g). All of these schools save for four of the charters are rated 1+ (Chicago Public Schools, 2016g).
Figure 7. Types of Public Schools within 2.5 Miles of Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts
Figure 8. School Quality Ratings of Public Schools within 2.5 Miles of Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts
Figure 9. Combined Breakdown of Ratings and Types of Public Schools within 2.5 Miles of Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts
AACA Student Enrollment
AACA’s attendance has steadily risen over the past decade from 139 students in 2003-2004 to 395 students in 2011-2012 (ELSI, 2016). This enrollment count has further increased, with AACA reporting close to 450 students in the 2013-14 school year (Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts, 2015).
Figure 10. Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts Total Student Enrollment
School Profile 2: St. Richard School at 5025 S. Kenneth Avenue
St. Richard School, located in Chicago’s Archer Heights neighborhood, serves students beginning at 3 years old in their pre-kindergarten classroom, and continuing up to the eighth grade (Archdiocese of Chicago, 2016b). St. Richard’s student body is primarily Latino, with 88.6% of its students in the 2014-15 school year, but also includes Caucasians (11%) and African Americans (0.6%) (St. Richard School, 2015). 72% of its students are from low-income backgrounds and qualify for free or reduced lunch and breakfast (St. Richard School, 2015).
School Choice near St. Richard School
The neighborhood school assigned to the St. Richard’s area is Edwards Elementary, a kindergarten through 8th grade school with a 1 rating (Chicago Public Schools, 2016g). Generally, within a 2.5 radius of St. Richard School there are a total of 21 neighborhood public schools serving elementary grades (Chicago Public Schools, 2016g). 16 are Kindergarten through Eighth grades; the others serve Kindergarten through Fourth, Kindergarten through Fifth, Fifth through Eighth and Sixth through Eighth (Chicago Public Schools, 2016g). Of the Kindergarten through Eighths, seven are rated 1+, six 1, and the final three 2+ (Chicago Public Schools, 2016g). The Kindergarten through 4 is rated 1+, while both middle schools are rated 1. Of the two Kindergarten through Fifths, one is rated a 1, and the other a 2+.
Figure 11. Map of the 30 Elementary and Middle Schools and their ratings located within 2.5 miles of St. Richard School
Additionally, there are 6 no-zone charter schools, a neighborhood bounded charter, a city-wide Pre-kindergarten through Eighth, and a magnet Pre-Kindergarten through Eighth within a 2.5 mile radius of St. Richard (Chicago Public Schools, 2016g). Four of the no-zone charter schools–Global Citizenship, UNO Brighton Park, UNO Marquez, and UNO Torres–as well as the bounded charter UNO Tamayo are rated a 1 (Chicago Public Schools, 2016g). The other 2 charters, as well as Talman Citywide Elementary and Gunsaulus Magnet, are rated a 1+ (Chicago Public Schools, 2016g).
Figure 12. School Quality Ratings of Public Schools located within 2.5 Miles of St. Richard School
Figure 13. Breakdown of above School Quality Ratings by Type of Public School
St. Richard School Student Enrollment
St. Richard’s enrollment has remained relatively stable, save for a dip between 2003-2004 and 2007-2008 (ELSI, 2016).
Figure 14. St. Richard School Total Student Enrollment
Explaining the Decline: Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools and Public School Choice
These profiles demonstrate that the narrative of declining Catholic school enrollment, while true overall, is more complex than documented by the media. Despite the prevalence of these various well-rated public schooling options, AACA’s enrollment has steadily risen over the past decade, while St. Richard School’s enrollment over time has remained relatively stable, if not increased slightly. To be sure, the majority of the schools available to these families other than their neighborhood schools are charter schools, which require a lottery that does not guarantee admission. Still, for the most part the public schools in this area are well-rated.
It is also important to note that these stable enrollment trends exist even for schools serving lower-income and minority children; St. Richard, which is 88.6% Latino, has 72% of its students on free or reduced lunch and breakfast (St. Richard School, 2015). This arguably speaks to the surprising affordability of a Catholic education in communities as diverse as the Archdiocese of Chicago’s, even amongst richer populations. AACA, for its part, awards $53,000 in tuition assistance annually (Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts, 2015). Indeed, there are various avenues through which students can afford a Catholic education, including funding from the Archdiocese itself, through its recently launched Caritas Scholars Program, the Big Shoulders Fund, or through alumni networks. Earlier this year, I, as an alumna of St. Michael the Archangel School, an Archdiocese of Chicago elementary school located in South Chicago, received a request from the school to consider donating to a scholarship fund; the letter included the story of a fellow St. Michael alumna who attended on scholarship and now is graduating from a well-ranked college.
Reimagining Catholic Schools as School Choice
Thus we see that despite declines in attendance, the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools continue to provide schooling for thousands of Chicago’s students. For this reason, it is important to develop a more nuanced understanding of the ways these Catholic schools may be thought of as another option in the ever expanding school choice market. Indeed recent initiatives launched by the Archdiocese of Chicago demonstrate the ways in which the Archdiocese of Chicago’s schools are adapting to this market and marketing their own educational model.
One example is Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts, which changed its name in December of 2002 from Alphonsus Academy to include an emphasis on arts (Private School Review, 2016). Indeed statements such as
“A faith-based Catholic education is still central to the AACA story, but our arts focus allows our children to engage in learning experiences that build critical thinking skills and apply those skills to real-life situations” (Private School Review, 2016)
suggest a desire to expand their student population. To be sure, priority in admissions is given to registered parishioners of St. Alphonsus and other parishes. However, at the same time, academic excellence and arts integration are prioritized over their Catholic community in statements such as
“We inspire and enable our children to reach their full potential by providing a rigorous education combining academic excellence, an arts-integrated curriculum, and a strong Catholic foundation” (Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts, 2016).
While further research is necessary to determine the extent to which one can claim this marketing as “saving” the school, AACA does appear to have worked to maintain attractive through various measures, including improving their pupil-teacher ratios from the 2009-10 school year to 2011-12.
Figure 15: The large improvement of AACA’s pupil-teacher ratios may suggest an effort to maintain ratios competitive with other high quality schools.
St. Richard School also is working to remain competitive, emphasizing in their Executive Summary (2015) their extracurricular opportunities, professional development for teachers, and a current technology initiative that aims to provide every student access to iPads (St. Richard School, 2015). At the same time, part of St. Richard’s appeal may be the opportunity to enroll their children in an additional Extended Day program, that extends the school day on both ends (from 6:30am-7:40am and 3:00-6:00pm) (St. Richard School, 2015). This Extended Day is ideal for parents who work long hours and are wary about their children being alone, particularly in some of the higher-crime neighborhoods.
In addition to efforts conducted within individuals schools, the Archdiocese of Chicago as a whole has worked to rebrand their schools through their website, their 2013-16 Strategic Plan for Catholic Schools, and the recently launched Virtual Academy. On their website, the Archdiocese of Chicago markets their religious education is not free, but a worthy investment (Archdiocese of Chicago, 2016c). While focusing on educating the entire student, the Archdiocese of Chicago also provides a list of its tangible achievements, including above average scores, high graduation rates, and the highest number of US Department of Education Blue Ribbon schools of any school district. A quality early childhood education is also emphasized on their website.
The 2013-16 Strategic Plan for Catholic Schools and School Choice imagines a specific future for the Archdiocese, including efforts to improve curriculum and the leadership quality within teachers and schools, as well as raise funding to make the overall school system both higher quality and more affordable.
Finally, through their new Virtual Academy platform, the Archdiocese has further adjusted Catholic schooling to truly fit the individual student, as it allows students to access a quality education from their own homes. More than that, the Virtual Academy can also act as a supplement to a child’s schooling by providing extra support and advanced material, such as Advanced Placement courses.
In sum, Catholic schools, and particularly the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic schools, can not and should not be omitted from conversations surrounding school choice. While Catholic schools may not be the best fit for every student, across the country and particularly the city of Chicago, they are providing thousands of students with quality education, an opportunity all students in this country deserve access to.
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