Common Enrollment Is Just the First Step Toward High School Equity in Chicago

This week, the Chicago Board of Education voted to adopt a common enrollment process for high school admissions next year. This could be a great relief to the city’s eighth-graders and their families for years to come. Right now, families have to make sense of separate application processes for Chicago Public School (CPS) high schools outside their zone, charter high schools and selective enrollment high schools that require a special test for admission. Even the district’s chief academic officer, Janice Jackson, found the complexity of high school admissions  surprising. Even central office wasn’t fully aware of all the criteria its own high schools were using to admit students, especially for specialty programs within individual high schools. A one-stop application for all the city’s high schools could not only make it easier on parents, it could encourage them to apply to great schools they might otherwise have overlooked. That’s what happened in Denver, which adopted a common enrollment system four years ago. Parents there say  finding the right school has become much easier and more convenient. For Chicago to achieve greater equity in access to good schools through its new high school admissions process, parents and students will need wise guidance in how to work the application system. In Denver, New York and New Orleans, common applications for high school have spelled the end of geographically-zoned neighborhood high schools.  Research in New York City suggests that although common enrollment significantly increased kids’ chances of landing in a high school they wanted to attend, large numbers of students from families who couldn’t navigate the process landed in schools that couldn’t meet their needs or were far from home. But in some cities that are just getting on the common enrollment bandwagon, like Indianapolis and Chicago, that’s not the case. Here, students still have the automatic opportunity to attend their neighborhood high school if they don’t want to go through the choice system. This is an important guardrail for the most vulnerable students, whose families may not take part in even a one-stop application process. We know that kids drop out of school as early as  eighth grade, and occasionally even younger. No one wants a high school enrollment process to make it harder to keep kids in school.

Common Enrollment Alone Won’t Achieve Equity

By contrast, everyone wants a high school enrollment process that makes it easier for families to know their choices, decide which are the best ones for their children and manage the application process with a minimum of stress. Other cities experiences with common enrollment systems show that while they do reduce or eliminate the need to manage multiple applications and deadlines, they don’t automatically make it easy for families to know their choices and decide which are the best fits for their children. Next fall in Chicago, the common enrollment system won’t include all charters, nor will it include the highly-coveted selective enrollment high schools, which require a special exam. But it could be a first step toward an easier time finding the right high school for thousands of Chicago families. And that’s no small accomplishment. As Chicago’s neighborhood high school advocates, Generation All,  have observed, it will take a series of next steps, too. They include:
  • Working with families and community groups to refine how the matching algorithm works;
  • Building new systems of information and guidance for families to know the real deal on high schools and their programs; and
  • Going deep into the peer-to-peer networks that often are the real forces in shaping what choices students really make about high school.
Taking those steps will require commitment not just from the district but from external nonprofits: community groups, youth programs and possibly even new nonprofits that can both review schools and advise families on how to make good choices. Already, CPS is partnering with the Urban Education Institute (UEI) on an online guide, High School Bound. UEI is going deeper into schools through its Success Project and New Schools for Chicago’s  Kids First is also tackling the job of helping families find the right high school. But there’s still room for more support. Local social entrepreneurs could take a look at New York’s  Inside Schools and  Enroll Indy as potential models. Most importantly, city and state leaders can ensure that all the city’s public high schools, especially the neighborhood schools on the South and West Sides, get the resources and staff they need to support their students through high school and prepare them for college and careers. The current  CPS lawsuit over education funding for Illinois—where a ruling is expected on Friday—is just one battle in that long fight.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

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