escape selective enrollment

Here’s How My Family Escaped the Selective Enrollment Rat Race

In the 1980s my parents spent the night in their Toyota Tercel, waiting in a line to get a lottery number to get me tested and into a spot for kindergarten at a magnet school for gifted kids.  In 2012, our family waded through an online lottery process to get our oldest into a kindergarten spot at one of Chicago Public Schools’ selective enrollment programs for gifted kids. It seemed like the right thing to do.  

But over time, we learned that there was a disconnect between the values we wanted for our children and the effects of the selective enrollment model. Like most parents, my husband and I have spent countless hours discussing what kind of people we want our children to be, the values we hope to impart  and what kind of adults we hope they’ll grow into. Over the years, my husband and I have discussed wanting our kids to be kind and inclusive human beings.  We’ve discussed wanting our kids to become adults who are emotionally attuned and resilient enough to find the people and experiences in life that make them happy.  

My elementary and middle school education in gifted programs afforded me opportunities and experiences that other students in our district didn’t have.  My elementary and middle school education in gifted programs offered individualized content and ensured I didn’t get bored. I wanted these things for our son.  But by the time he was in fourth grade, we realized that CPS selective enrollment programming was nothing like my experiences in the 1980s, and nothing like what our child needed in order to become the kind of person we hoped he’d be. 

We Gave Up Commuting and Got Our Lives Back

So, three years ago, we switched our two kids from their magnet and selective enrollment schools. We moved to our neighborhood school and began making a concerted effort to switch our focus from accelerated curriculum to the values and qualities we hope to impart to our child. We decided that we wanted all kids to have opportunities,  experiences and individualized content to ensure they don’t get bored. We decided our kids needed to see us living the values we hope they’ll someday embody.

We gave up the commutes and ridiculous bus schedules, leaving us more time to volunteer and show our kids what it looks like to use our talents to serve our communities.  We’ve worked to help our kids see the beauty in having a life that balances school with the freedom of hanging around the neighborhood with their peers after school.

We’ve spent the last couple of years very intentionally redirecting from the messages of academic rigor that are thrown at kids in selective enrollment programming.  We’ve made sure our kids realize that advancing through curriculum quickly is not a trade off for the experiences they have thanks to less homework and less competition.  We’ve made sure our kids understand that test scores only measure how well you do on tests. We shifted our priorities away from grades and test scores toward social emotional learning, restorative justice and social justice, because we want our kids to know that how they treat themselves and others is more important than their ability to do math two grade levels higher. 

At Seventh Grade, It Gets Tougher

Our oldest child is now in seventh grade.  Orientation for seventh grade was full of teachers talking about preparing the kids to do well on the April test that factors into their chances of admission to various high school selective enrollment programs.  It seems we can’t escape the idea that test scores are important no matter how hard we try.  

As we prepare for high school, we’ve found ourselves battling all the same beliefs we decided to redirect away from.  But now we’re battling them coming from our seventh grader. Our oldest has been considering selective enrollment high schools.  Hearing this made us worry that our efforts to refocus over the last three years were for nought.  

Then we went to a high school fair.  The Lane Tech selective enrollment table was staffed by a counselor who told us about all classes being honors in order to do well on tests. Our neighborhood high school’s table was staffed by students who talked about being part of a community and the opportunities the school provides for finding students with similar interests.  Lane Tech’s materials talked about average test scores and college acceptance rates. Our neighborhood high school’s materials talked about academic programming to suit a diverse range of students and their college completion rates. 

After we left the fair, our oldest child started to digest what he’d seen and heard.  We talked about how the things that the schools track are very different. And the child whom we’ve worked to refocus stated that he saw how one school was focused on an end goal and one was focused on the journey.  At this point, our oldest child is leaning towards our neighborhood high school. He wants to enjoy the journey rather than endure the stress that comes with a relentless focus on end goals. We couldn’t be prouder.

Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash

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Cassandra Kaczocha

Cassandra Kaczocha is the mom of two CPS middle graders and a public education advocate. She is passionate about racial equity and ensuring that all kids get high-quality education through our public schools.

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