The Chicago Tribune reported that more than half of Chicago students now attend a school other than the one the district assigned based on their address.
The pull to another school is greatest when the neighborhood school is struggling academically. That belies a common assumption that poor kids in low-performing schools are trapped in these schools. In fact, students who live within the boundaries of the city’s worst schools have the highest rate of going elsewhere.
But the story hints at a different problem—where it is those students are actually going. Too often, students and families are simply trading one low-quality choice for another. For example, Hirsch High School, rated level 3, the lowest ranking in the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) accountability system, today enrolls just 150 students. While the majority of Hirsch students live within the neighborhood boundaries, 68 of them chose Hirsch over their neighborhood school.
If Hirsch ranks so poorly, why would anyone choose to go there? In part, it depends on what your other choices are. If you didn’t know about the information session at Noble’s Gary Comer College Prep, only a mile away and rated level 1, you didn’t get the application and you can’t apply. So you don’t have that choice.
It also depends on what your default option is. If you live in the attendance area for Harlan High School—also ranked at level 3—Hirsch might look more attractive, especially if you are a young person looking to make a fresh start in high school. But if you are eligible for one of Harlan’s specialty programs, like pre-engineering, you might live in Hirsch’s area and choose Harlan instead.
Applying to high school in Chicago is a complex, confusing process. Test scores are required not just for the well-known elite schools like Whitney Young and Walter Payton, but for smaller selective programs within neighborhood high schools. CPS has a centralized, yet very complicated, admissions process for five kinds of high schools.
Meanwhile, each charter school or network has its own admissions procedures. The hurdles to high school admission range from luck of the draw—winning a lottery—to the seventh-grade gauntlet of grades, standardized test scores and admissions exam scores required by the elite selective enrollment high schools.
This year, CPS stopped printing its high school guide, making it available only online. A brief online fact sheet addresses some of the myths that have grown up around how to rank choices and beat the system. You have to be a pretty savvy student—or parent—to find the online information.
And getting help at your school can be a crapshoot. Elementary school guidance counselors often double as special education case managers, leaving them with little time to advise students and families about their high school options.
Other cities, like Denver and New Orleans, have simplified admissions by creating a common enrollment system among district and charter-run schools. This means students and families can fill out a single application ranking their choices. The common enrollment system covers all or nearly all the public schools.
A 2015 report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that common enrollment systems dramatically reduced back-door admissions policies that allowed assertive or politically connected parents unfair advantage in helping their children win admission to highly coveted schools. Denver parents from all socioeconomic backgrounds praised the new system for making the application process simpler.
But as the report notes, creating a common enrollment system is only the first step in ensuring school choice creates real choice, not churn. The crucial—and more difficult—challenge is to ensure all the options, across Chicago, are high-quality.
That will require more than inviting new schools to submit proposals—it will take supporting existing schools to become more responsive to student needs and better able to prepare students for fulfilling adult lives.