CPS Has Reached Some Record-High Attainment Rates. How Equitably Were Outcomes Distributed Across Communities?
Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) mission is to provide high-quality education for every student, regardless of their zip code, that prepares them for college success. Yet it’s been difficult to determine the extent to which a CPS student’s zip code might still matter in whether they graduate from high school and college.
Although high school and college attainment outcomes are reported for every high school in CPS, fewer than one in four CPS freshmen enrolled in their assigned neighborhood high school in 2019. As a result, the patterns in student attainment by community area may not mirror the rates for high schools located in that community.
Fewer than one in four CPS freshmen enrolled in their assigned neighborhood high school in 2019.
New research from the UChicago Consortium and the To&Through Project begins to fill this gap by contrasting variation in CPS students’ attainment by the community area in which they live and their attainment by the high school they attend. In doing so, we are able to more clearly see the consequential impacts that the legacy and current reality of racial segregation has had on students’ educational experiences throughout Chicago.
The patterns we see in the data from this report therefore cannot be separated from larger systemic issues and beliefs that directly and indirectly led to public and private disinvestments in schools and communities of color. Consequently, the findings from this research cannot be understood as a reflection of students’ abilities and aspirations. To do otherwise is to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and narratives about students and their communities.
The patterns we see in the data from this report therefore cannot be separated from larger systemic issues and beliefs that directly and indirectly led to public and private disinvestments in schools and communities of color.
Rather, by providing a geographic understanding of CPS students’ attainment, the report aims to highlight how students’ experiences in and outside of school affect their educational attainment — and how addressing the enduring disinvestments in communities of color could be another avenue to help more students reach their full potential.
The findings of our study both reinforce and complicate the story of rising attainment in the district. In 2009, the four-year high school graduation rate in CPS was 66%. In 2019, the rate was 82%, and high school graduation rates were similar across community areas.
The findings of our study both reinforce and complicate the story of rising attainment in the district.
We found that in most community areas, the high school graduation rate was between 70 and 80%. However, the rates for the same students by high school ranged from 49% and 99%.
Community area context clearly shapes students’ experiences in high school and their attainment, but high schools play a more proximal role in helping students graduate. Providing students the opportunity to choose their high school may have done much to ameliorate the differences in high school graduation across communities. However, the sorting of students also means that many students still attend high schools with low attainment rates; in about one-sixth of high schools, fewer than 70% of students graduated.
Community area context clearly shapes students’ experiences in high school and their attainment, but high schools play a more proximal role in helping students graduate.
While we found that students’ likelihood of graduating from high school was relatively similar regardless of what community area they lived in, that was not true for college completion. The college completion rate among immediate college enrollees in the CPS class of 2013 (the latest cohort for which college graduation data was available ) was 46%.
However, college completion rates varied widely by community area, ranging from 24% to 74%. Yet even as the differences in college completion rates by community area were large, we found that they were even larger across high schools, ranging from below 10% to above 90%.
Across the city, immediate college enrollees from all community areas are completing college. However, a student’s community area continues to matter greatly in whether they attain a college credential.
A student’s community area continues to matter greatly in whether they attain a college credential.
The data in our report do not illuminate the reasons why the differences were so stark. Students coming from different community areas came to college with different financial resources, academic preparation, and knowledge of college culture. Perhaps more importantly, they may have attended colleges with varying degrees of resources, policies, and environments for supporting first-generation college students, low-income students, and students of color.
The patterns in college completion by community area that we see in the data from this report suggest that using a community-based strategy on top of school-based strategies could be useful in addressing inequities in college completion. Over the past two decades, colleges have increasingly enrolled first-generation students, students of color, and low-income students, who bring a different set of assets, needs, and community contexts to their campuses. For colleges to ensure their students graduate, they need to understand the communities where students come from, and their effect on how students engage in and experience college life.
Using a community-based strategy on top of school-based strategies could be useful in addressing inequities in college completion.
The differences in college completion rates across community areas also point to an unmet need for colleges as well as public agencies and community organizations to provide resources where their students live. Colleges can and should be among the institutions contributing to the assets students bring to their campuses and strengthening the community contexts from which they come.
Transforming the educational futures for young people depends on looking beyond the K–12 education system and higher education, to investments in the communities where students live. We need to build an ecological understanding of change and interconnect the work of people across sectors to transform how students can engage in school and envision their futures. Schools are the center of educational change, but starting to address the inequities in the communities where students live is an essential step in transforming what is possible when students transition to adulthood.
The text in this article first appeared in Approaching Chicago Student Attainment from a Community Perspective, a report from the To&Through Project and University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. To interact with data on CPS students’ high school and college attainment for each of Chicago’s 77 community areas, explore the To&Through Community Milestones Tool.
 Henricks, K., Lewis, A.E., Arenas, I., & Lewis, D.G. (2017) A tale of three cities: The state of racial justice in Chicago report. Chicago, IL: Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy.
Metropolitan Planning Council, Urban Institute. (2017) The cost of segregation. Chicago, IL: Metropolitan Planning Council.
Rothstein, R. (2017) The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation.
 Nagaoka, J., Mahaffie, S., Usher, A., & Seeskin, A. (2020). The educational attainment of Chicago Public Schools students: 2019. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
 Barrow, L., & Sartain, L. (2019) GoCPS: A first look at ninth-grade applications, offers, and enrollment. Chicago, IL: Consortium on School Research.
Gwynne, J.A., & Moore, P.T. (2017) Chicago’s charter high schools: Organizational features, enrollment, school transfers, and student performance. Chicago, IL: Consortium on School Research.
 The cohort used here refers to the students who graduated from CPS high school in the spring of 2013, immediately enrolled in college in fall of 2013, and graduated college by spring of 2019. For post-secondary milestones — such as college enrollment and graduation — students were assigned into community areas based on where they lived in the year they graduated from high school. See the report’s appendix for more details.
 See the To&Through Milestones Tool: https://toandthrough.uchicago.edu/tool/cps/hs/2021/details/#/college-completion