For years, Chicago charter school advocates have repeatedly boasted of long waiting lists for charter elementary and high schools in the city. It’s an idea that has helped fuel an expansion of charter schools, even during a time of declining enrollment in Chicago Public Schools.
But limited data made it hard to say how popular charter high schools really were — until now. Data from a new centralized high school application system shows charters, on the whole, are not big favorites.
A WBEZ analysis shows enough room at the city’s charter schools this year for nearly every eighth-grader who picked a charter as their top choice. That means there is plenty of supply, which is not the case for students who ranked test-in schools as their top choice and as well as many traditional high schools with popular academic programs.
Under this new application system, students rank schools 1 to 20 in preferential order. They have more than a hundred options to pick from — including vocational, military, magnet, or charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.
Students are then matched with just one school. WBEZ analyzed students’ top ranking because of the heavy weight it carries in this single offer system.There is a separate application for test-in schools where students can receive a second single offer from one of those selective schools. WBEZ analyzed the most recently available data, from late July, a time when most but not all students had finalized their high school choices.
School rankings show students’ dream schools
ChicagoQuest High School, in the Old Town neighborhood, has 125 seats for freshmen but only 31 students ranked the school as their first choice this year. The area has seen a big drop in neighborhood students over the years as the nearby Cabrini-Green public housing development has closed.
“We have to be very strategic,” said Ulric Shannon, director of admissions and community engagement with Civitas Education Partners, which operates Quest and three other Chicago International Charter School campuses.
“I know there were some challenges this year. But now, students are really getting familiar with the process of how to apply for a high school.”
Until last fall, eighth-graders applied to most of the city’s high schools individually. Each charter school managed applications independently and admitted students without any oversight from the school district. If the number of applications surpassed the number of seats, the charter school held a lottery.
Now, with the new centralized online system, all schools can see more clearly where students really want to go.
A handful of charter high schools are highly sought after — with far more students ranking the school No. 1 than there were seats available. Nearly all the city’s charter schools — 47 — participated in the new centralized application system. Only a handful of alternative charter schools didn’t participate.
“I can tell you that we had several of our schools that were selected multiple, multiple times by lots of applicants,” said Constance Jones, president of the Noble Network of Charter Schools.
Noble is the city’s largest network, with 17 high school campuses. A handful, including UIC College Prep near the Illinois Medical District, are wildly popular, with hundreds more students picking the school as a top choice than the school had room.
But most charter high schools had plenty of room for their top choice students. That includes more than half the Noble campuses, data shows.
Sixty-four percent of charters could accommodate every student that ranked that school No. 1. That drops to 47 percent for regular high schools or specialized programs within regular high schools. Not one of the city’s 11 selective enrollment schools had enough room for every student who ranked them as their top pick, data analyzed by WBEZ shows.
Charter supporters see things differently.
“I think it’s wrong,” said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter schools. Broy said the data shows “ that charter schools are very popular.”
Broy is looking at the top three rankings students marked on their applications.
“There are still thousands of students who applied for a charter school and didn’t get into that school and therefore are going to be on the waitlist for those schools.”
But that is not unique to charter high schools. Many regular Chicago public schools and test-in schools have thousands of students who wanted a spot and didn’t get in.
WBEZ’s analysis also shows that students who ranked charters as No. 2 or 3 were more likely to get a spot than students ranking other types of schools. Students who ranked a charter school No. 2 had a 36 percent chance of getting a spot. But student who ranked a regular high school No. 2 had only a 23 percent chance. That drops to 6 percent when it comes to selective enrollment test-in schools.
What’s behind student rankings
A student’s thinking on how to rank schools is influenced by a number of factors. The location of the school plays a big role. Also, students tend to prefer schools with strong academic, vocational, or athletic programs.
Other key variables are at play — some schools might not have much demand because they are in parts of the city where the student population is declining.
But those factors affect all kinds of schools, whether they are charter or regular high schools. What Chicago now has is data on what schools are in high demand.
“We have much better information now, about actual preference and how much excess demand there is for certain programs,” said Lisa Barrow, a senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. She has been analyzing data from the school district’s new high school application.
Barrow’s research comes after dozens of charters have open in recent years — even as enrollment in CPS has been dropping.
“CPS and anyone trying to open a school in Chicago is [now] going to have a better idea of what do students and their families want,” she said,
WBEZ education reporter Sarah Karp contributed to this story.