At Chavez Multicultural Academic Center on Chicago’s South Side, school counselor Marisela Corona circled the eighth-grade classrooms, reminding students to complete the final step in their high school application process.
“All right guys. I want to remind you, what happens on Friday?” asked Corona. “Deadline to accept.”
These eighth-graders are at the end of a process that will match them with a public high school of their choice.
Chicago Public Schools is in its second year of using a centralized online application system called GoCPS. The purpose is to help direct students to the schools that best align with their interests and academic backgrounds. Students can pick up to 20 schools and list them in preferential order.
GoCPS is part of the transition Chicago Public Schools has been making toward a choice-based school system. Today, less than 25 percent of students attend a neighborhood school.
April 12 was the last day for each student to either accept or decline their high school offer after months of preparation and anxiety. Since September, eighth-graders have been evaluating their high school options from a menu of more than 130 high schools — all with different specialty and academic programs.
This year, school officials said of the 26,619 eighth-graders who applied to high school using this online system, 81.3 percent will be matched with one of the first three schools they ranked.
That was the case for eighth-graders at Chavez, where most of Corona’s students received offers from one of their top three choices.
“I can’t remember any students crying because they didn’t get into a choice program that they wanted to,” Corona said. “Last year I saw tears, because they didn’t get accepted to the program that they wanted.”
The big difference this time around, Corona said, is that more students and their parents understood, from the start, which schools they were most likely to receive offers from. She has been using a separate online school planner to help students calculate, based on their test scores, grades and demographics, which high schools and programs would most likely give them an offer.
She also made sure families understood one important detail: This choice-based system is extremely competitive, and thousands of students are trying to get into the most popular academic programs.
“Your test scores count to the high school that you are going to be eligible to apply, your grades count, and your attendance has an effect on your grades and your testing, so we talk about every aspect of it,” Corona said. She said at Chavez, parents and students start thinking about high school in fifth grade.
Chavez enrolls 80 eighth-graders, and 19 of them received offers to selective enrollment programs. Other students got into schools that offer the popular International Baccalaureate programs, including Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, which is less than a mile west of Chavez. Students who ranked IB programs as their first choice and didn’t get accepted received offers from other choice programs, including military, arts and career and technical education programs, Corona said.
“I always try to tell students, there is no bad school,” Corona said, referring to the students who didn't get offers from the schools they wanted. “The student has to want to do well in school. I want to make sure that the students don’t get depressed…. I don’t want them to have the mentality of a loser or to think ‘Oh well, I am not good enough.’”
The new online high school application system helps streamline the complex process previously used by the district. Under that system, students and parents had to keep track of numerous deadlines, separate application processes and requirements.
“We created GoCPS to make applying to high school simpler and more equitable so that all students can easily find and apply to the programs that are right for them. Chicago families have been eager to utilize GoCPS, and we are pleased that more of our applicants are being matched to their top choices this year,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said in a statement.
But regardless of the ease of navigation, some parents don’t find the new system as equitable as Jackson does.
Sandra Wagner is just finishing up GoCPS with her second child. Both her children applied to selective enrollment schools. She has been preparing them since seventh grade.
“It’s very tough, it’s very stressful and there aren't that many options,” Wagner said. “My daughter and son could not have any B’s during the seventh-grade year. They needed straight A’s, and they need to be very focused and very concentrated on that A.”
Wagner got a tutor when one of her kids struggled with math and paid for test-prep classes to help them both prepare for the standardized tests that are crucial during the selective enrollment application process.
Her kids got an offer from Lane Technical College Preparatory High School. They were among the 24.2 percent of students who received offers from their top three selective enrollment high schools.
But outside John Spry Elementary Community School on the Southwest Side, where 98 percent of students are considered low-income, some parents and students said the application process was easy. Rosa Maria Alfaro is one of them; her child accepted an offer to Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy, her first choice. “To me the process was smooth. I had no issues, and my daughter had no issues,” Alfaro said. Her daughter Alondra said she is interested in the health programs that Instituto offers.
Nury Ortega, whose son is in sixth grade, said many families thought the process went smoothly because counselors talked with students about their grades and expectations. Eighth-graders didn’t aim for schools that would require better grades and test scores than they had. Ortega is also the vice president of Spry’s Local School Council.
Spry performs below national and district average on standardized tests. Ortega said her school needs more resources to help students succeed academically. Parents and students also need to know ahead of time what steps to take so that the children have a better shot at the best schools for them.