A look back: White flight has impact on NW Side schools
by BRIAN NADIG
The impact of the 1980 consent decree calling for a voluntary desegregation plan in Chicago had a major impact on Northwest Side schools, as local enrollment plummeted due to "White flight."
From the late 1970s through the mid-1990s, many local public schools experienced significant drops in enrollment and relied on the transfer of students from outside their attendance boundaries in order to stay open. Some schools also created top-notch special education programs to attract students.
About 93 percent of students at Edgebrook and Wildwood schools were bused in during the late 1980s. In an interview, a former principal at Wildwood used her two hands to count the number of local students, listing them by name, and needing only eight of her 10 fingers to get through the list.
In the 1990s, then-Edgebrook principal Dr. Diane Maciejewski changed the school’s curriculum, and Edgebrook was one of the area’s first schools to experience significant increases in its local enrollment. The school became one of the top-rated schools not only in Chicago but also in the state.
Under then-principal Elena Savoy’s leadership in the 1990s, Wildwood was recognized for its high test scores, but it struggled to attract local students – in part due to the proximity of the popular Saint Mary of the Woods School. Discussions on whether Wildwood should do more to recruit more local families led to contentious local school council meetings, often lasting past midnight.
At some schools local enrollment noticeably declined as the students got older.
Former Farnsworth School principal Dr. Catherine Wells once said that many families would move to the suburbs when their child was in fifth or sixth grade because they did not want him or her going to a public high school in Chicago.
At the time the area’s grammar school principals were not shy about voicing concerns about Taft High School. In interviews, several would describe Taft as a "last resort" for their graduates, and many prohibited Taft from recruiting their students at high school fairs or other events.
Perhaps one of the biggest factors impacting local enrollments in the 1990s was the high numbers of Eastern European immigrants who moved to Chicago after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991. In the Belmont-Cragin area, many elementary schools became overcrowded overnight due to the influx of immigrants, and this population shift eventually moved further north.
The consent decree was intended to help address racial discrimination in Chicago schools, but in 2009 a federal judge vacated the decree, as some education experts questioned whether the decree did much to integrate schools given the white flight. School system officials maintained that even without the decree, measures would be taken to help maintain a racial balance at gifted schools.
Meanwhile, many of the area’s schools proudly promote their diverse populations – whether culturally or racially or both – and hold "International Nights." Hispanic enrollment is high through the area, and it is not unusual for dozens of languages to be spoken at a school.
In 2018, Farnsworth’s racial makeup consisted of 43 percent Hispanic, 38 percent white, 14 percent Asian, 2 percent black, 1 percent Pacific Islander and 2 percent multi-racial. Beaubien has a similar racial makeup, and 44 percent of its students come from low-income families, according to the state.
Editor’s note: Next up: a look back on how the consent decree impacted Taft High School.