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Chicago parents: Get your [multiple] school applications ready

Applying to some of Chicago’s best public schools has been a harrowing experience for parents and students.

There are roughly 15 different types of schools and seven different applications, not counting charter schools, which each have their own application.

“They don’t even know where to start,” said Christine Whitley, who runs a business helping parents figure out public school admissions. “Just learning the language is completely overwhelming. They know there are other options, but they don’t know really what’s a magnet school and what’s gifted and how to do you apply and when do you apply.”

The dizzying process starts today and ends in early December. To make things more complicated, the CPS-sponsored school options fair has been cancelled this year due to budget cuts.

Earlier this year, district officials promised a more simplified process—one that required a single application.

District spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said they’re holding off on its roll out because there are “so many other new initiatives being implemented.”

District officials and charter school leaders have been working on a new system for months with a consulting group called the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice. Ziegler did not provide any details when asked if the new system was ready or still in development. A consultant with IIPSC said the working group was ready to take a big step forward, but the teachers strike pushed it back. 

Andrew Broy, the director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, says most charters are on board with the idea of a single application that would include charters, but have some concerns about its implementation.

“The challenge right now is that the charter marketplace doesn’t have any problem getting parents to enroll. We have waiting lists, right?” Broy said. “So the concern would be, if CPS handles enrollment now would that confuse parents? Would they not know how to get access to it? What if there are challenges with the roll out?”

There are a lot of unknowns about how a single application system might work in CPS, and Ziegler did not respond to WBEZ’s requests asking to speak with someone from the district working on the project.

But a number of other large urban school districts use application systems designed by IIPSC, including New York City, New Orleans, Boston and Denver.

Here’s how it works at the high school level in New York City, which has a similar spread of school options:

1. Parents and students research schools and decide which ones they’re interested in.  On the application, they rank their top eight choices.

2. If a student ranks a school that has extra admissions requirements, like a test or an audition, they then must also complete those components.

3. Once all students have completed the extra application requirements, a computer system goes to work matching students to one of their top choices. The algorithm is designed to sort through the specialty schools first, admitting kids who have both ranked them and are eligible based on the additional requirements, test scores, audition performance, etc.

4. Students are sent a letter with a single school or “match.” This is the school they are assigned to for the following school year.

5. Some students do not get a “match” for a variety of reasons (not filling in a full list of choices, not meeting the criteria for their choices, etc.) Those students are asked to reapply, selecting from a list of schools that still have open seats.

6. When all students have a match, there is a final “appeals” process. If a student has changed his or her mind about where to go to school or dispute their match, they are able to appeal the pairing.

Ultimately, all students are assigned a school. It varies from city to city, but the technology can also give priority to students who live close to a school or have a sibling in the same school.

Chicago plans to implement the new system for high schools first and then elementary schools.

Whitley said a universal application could cut down on the chaos and uncertainty parents face, sometimes into the late weeks of summer. But, she said, it also relies on parents knowing a great deal of information about schools to make smart choices about what might be best for their child, and not all parents have the time or resources to tour schools and research what’s a good fit.

For now, parents will work under the current system—a complicated but familiar one.

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