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Chicago High Schools Compete Against Each Other — For Students

Sawyer Elementary eight-grader Cynthia Palafox checks over her high school application. Susie An/WBEZ

Susie An

At an open house at Solorio Academy on Chicago’s Southwest Side one evening this fall, the assistant principal pitched hard to eighth graders and their parents, urging them to rank Solorio their number one choice for high school.

Relying on a PowerPoint full of student photos, assistant principal Rosa Jimenez made sure parents knew Solorio was rated above several others nearby.

“We would not be who we are if we didn’t brag a little bit about ourselves,” Jimenez said. “You can see we’re rated one plus,” she told parents, referring to the Chicago Public Schools’ top academic rating.

In the mostly Latino neighborhood around Solorio that’s dotted with taquerias and sturdy bungalows, kids prefer to stay close to home for high school. In Chicago’s choice-based high school system, that puts Solorio squarely in competition with a handful of schools nearby, like Curie, Gage Park, and Hubbard.

Students perform a dance during an open house at Solorio Academy. (Susie An/WBEZ)

Chicago, for years, has been pushing school choice. Less than 25 percent of students overall now go to their local neighborhood high school, where they are guaranteed a spot. And this year, for the first time, Chicago Public Schools has moved to a new application that tries to better match that choice system and the competition that comes along with it. Applications are due Dec. 22.

Previously, students filled out multiple applications and could get multiple offers. This year, under a new single online application called GoCPS, kids rank up to 20 choices, and then in the spring, they’ll receive just one offer. This includes some programs with special admissions requirements. Students can also match with one selective enrollment school, which require testing to get in.

CPS hopes this will make choice more accessible to a broader range of students, including those who were previously disengaged from the process. In the past, a dizzying array of different applications and processes meant some kids without savvy parents were left out. Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson, who takes over as acting CEO next month, said families get the best outcomes when they have more information.

“This is about leveling the playing field,” Jackson said this fall. “There’s some families who know, and they can navigate the system; while there are some families that don’t know, and make choices based on what they feel. But we want to make sure they have data to back it up.”

Families said they have found the new application system more user-friendly. Information about each school, upcoming school events, and the application itself are all on one site. But this switch also has pumped up the competition, with schools amping up their marketing this fall. And some are concerned the new system could accelerate the decline of some schools that get few applications. There’s a lot at stake, especially for neighborhood schools already grappling with low enrollment and slashed budgets.

“We’re constantly thinking of how can we better market, how can we make people more aware of what we can offer their students,” said Curie Principal Allison Tingwall, whose school has seen its enrollment decline slightly, though it is at capacity. “I think with or without the application, we probably would’ve done a lot of the same things we did this year.”

Tingwall added more open houses and extra school tours this fall. She has an enthusiastic elevator pitch ready for eighth-graders.

“Curie is the most exciting high school in the city,” she said, citing the large school’s range of programs, including its rigorous International Baccalaureate offering. “It is a really dynamic environment. So if you come to school here, you’re not only getting a world class education, but you’re also getting some opportunities to work with other world class students.”

Helping kids make a choice

With the switch to GoCPS, the school system said it’s trying to reduce one barrier that prevents some families from making a meaningful choice. It aims to get at least 75 percent of district eighth-graders using GoCPS. The rest will will be automatically enrolled in their neighborhood school or rely on paper applications.

At Sawyer Elementary, which is close to both Solorio and Curie, eighth-graders on a recent afternoon researched schools on the GoCPS website. Counselor Nadia Miranda said she’s pushing hard to ensure none of her eighth-graders fall through the cracks. She posted charts showing the types of programs students can apply to and a list of questions they should ask themselves when making their picks.

Susie An/WBEZ

“You have to find a school that is a right fit for you,” she told her students. “Remember, you are spending the next four years of your precious life there. So you want to make sure it’s a place you enjoy.”

She asked for a show of hands of students who hadn’t started ranking their schools. A few kids, including 14-year-old Bryan Estrada, raised their hands.

“I forgot to bring the form and the username to log in for me to apply to high schools” Bryan admitted. “Yeah, it’s my first [time] looking at this site. I have no clue how to do it.”

It’s kids like Bryan that counselor Miranda is most intensely focused on. Unlike last year, when she was flooded with paper applications, she said the new system allows her to keep track in real time.

“I like that because I can go back and say ‘should you apply for more programs? You’re only going to have one choice,’” she said. “And I could track the kids that have not applied to anywhere at all. So I’m not going to let anybody go” without applying, she said.

Many of the students in Miranda’s class put Solorio and Curie high on their list. If students don’t get matched anywhere, they have a seat at their local school, which for many kids is Curie or Solorio. While both have an extensive list of programs, others nearby have considerably less offerings and continue to deal with severe underenrollment. Pressure is high on those schools as a five-year moratorium on school closings lifts in 2018.

Bryan Estrada got his first look at the GoCPS website during a session organized at his school. His counselor, Nadia Miranda, said the electronic application helps her keep track of students who may not fill it out on their own. (Susie An/WBEZ)

School survival ‘on the line’

David Gregg is admissions director at Senn High School on the city’s North Side. Senn has a neighborhood program as well as some with admissions requirements, like the International Baccalaureate track, and a fine and performing arts magnet program. His school isn’t under-enrolled, but Senn markets hard to make sure it stays that way.

“Our survival, in a sense, is on the line,” Gregg said. “If we don’t maintain our enrollment, then we’re going to lose teachers, or we’re going to lose more money in our budget and that’s going to cost us.”

He said the heightened competition forced his school and likely others to spend more on marketing rather than investing that money in academic programs. Meanwhile, some parents still think that outside of the city’s top school programs, high school choice is limited despite the large number of CPS high schools.

CPS leaders said they hope the new application will give neighborhood schools a better shot by highlighting them. A child’s neighborhood school pops up at the very top of their application, with a note reminding students they are guaranteed a spot there.

But Beatriz Ponce de Leon, executive director of Generation All, a group advocating for quality neighborhood schools, is concerned the new application could actually make things worse for neighborhood schools because many lack the resources of schools with which they are competing.

“We feel really strongly that neighborhood schools, if they’re going to be a choice in our system of choice, have to be invested in,” Ponce de Leon said. “We have to make sure that those schools, which are the guaranteed schools for people, are the best that they can be.”

Without those investments, Ponce de Leon and others worry it will only accelerate their decline.

Chicago eighth-graders must make their final choices by the end of this week. Come spring, when the acceptance letters arrive, CPS and thousands of students will know whether the new system delivered on its promise.

Susie An is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.