Let’s End the Admissions System that Forces Families to Pray for the High School of Their Choice

Last Friday night, families all over Chicago sat glued to their computers, waiting for the first round of results of the district’s high schools admissions process. Today at school, eighth-graders all over town are comparing notes about who got in where. Some young people and families are rejoicing, others are in tears. No one likes to put so much pressure on young teens.

What’s really hard is that some of those tears are warranted, but others probably aren’t. There’s a huge difference between the tears of a family whose kid didn’t get into Jones or Payton and are distressed about “settling” for a neighborhood IB program, and the tears of a family who knows their only fallback is a school like Harper or Hirsch, where even a $400,000 infusion of cash won’t be enough to restore the damage years of declining enrollment has done to academic offerings and extracurricular programs. (Harper is being phased out and Hirsch would a likely candidate for closure whenever a mayor decides to lift the moratorium now in place on school closings.)

Meanwhile, the family crying over missing out on Jones or Payton probably doesn’t even know that research suggests selective high schools may not make much difference for students. In fact a neighborhood IB program might actually  better position their children for college admissions and better prepare them to succeed on arrival.

What can be done to blow up a system that puts so much undue stress on 12- and 13–year-olds and fosters such profound inequity?

The first thing we can all do is change our view about what makes a “good” school.

Good High Schools Exist Beyond Selective Enrollment

A “good”school doesn’t have to be Payton College Prep, where many students missed only a few points of the 900 possible to earn in the selective enrollment process. It doesn’t even have to be a school that requires testing for admission.

To find out what makes a good school, the first step has nothing to do with school rankings or test scores. It starts with the student. Yes, I know most people know this. But when I hear someone from the North Side insist they would never put their child in a high school that required a 2-3 hour daily roundtrip commute, my back goes up instantly.

North Siders, check your privilege.

As a South Sider, I know that a 2-3 hour daily commute is what it takes for some of the kids in my neighborhood to get to the school they think is right for them. And it happens a lot. I know this is due to the historic inequity of resources in every way between the North Side and the South Side in this town. And I feel rage.

North Side Lady, maybe your kid would actually like going to Lindblom or Kenwood or King. Maybe they’d like to learn Arabic, which you actually can’t do at Northside College Prep, for example. Maybe they’d like the performing arts program at King. Maybe they’d thrive in a school like Kenwood, where there has recently much less tracking and much more flexibility to move into honors classes over time than is common in high schools generally. Or even a farther-away school like the Southwest Side’s Hancock High, which has gone through some profound transformations over the last few years and now offers pre-engineering and pre-law programs as well as a selective-enrollment option.

But North Side Lady, maybe you don’t know that because you never thought about letting your kid travel that far. Maybe you thought it wouldn’t be “safe.” Maybe the real problem is they’d have to go to school with a lot more Black and Latin@ kids.

Maybe if we all let go of the desire to “win” a seat that must be good because it’s hard to get, whether or not it actually makes any difference in our children’s future success, we could look more realistically at all the options available. And maybe if we stopped making assumptions about schools with which we’re unfamiliar, maybe we’d find out we have more choices than we thought.

So that’s the first step.

Let’s Fund Our High Schools Fairly

Maybe, once we’ve done that, we could all put pressure on the system to stop distributing money to high schools based on their special status as “selective enrollment.” Maybe we could even think about ways to support great programming in all our high schools by moving away from the practice of student-based budgeting, which rewards schools with lots of kids and punishes schools that lack the cachet to draw them.

In theory, student-based budgeting sounds smart and fair. Money follows kids and the schools with the most kids should get the most money, right? Sounds logical.

But in reality, the schools with the fewest kids tend to  have the kids who need the most supports–kids who are homeless or in foster care. Kids from very poor families. Likely kids who have experienced or witnessed violence in their neighborhoods or even in their homes.

At the very least, we need a student-based-budgeting formula that doesn’t just weight a little bit extra for poverty, ELL or special education status. Because in schools with lots of kids in these categories, we know “a little bit extra” still falls far short of enough.

We already found this out in special education, and walked back student-based budgeting there because it didn’t bring in enough money to meet the real needs of students with disabilities.  The magic phrase in this letter that tells you CEO Janice Jackson made the change comes when she says teachers will be assigned to schools “as a position allocation and not a funding equivalent.”

I’m with a former CPS principal friend, who said, “I’m hoping the next phase will be to make every high school viable, by investing heavily in neighborhood schools to make them more attractive to families who make choices based on everything but the quality of education.”

New state money for schools is starting to make this happen, but it’s only a start. Here’s hoping the next mayor will take a more aggressive approach to finding funds for this by challenging developers and ending unnecessary TIFs in wealthy neighborhoods that drain money away from where it was intended to go: the schools.

If we really want to end high school admissions as we know them in Chicago, this is what it’s going to take.


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash


The following two tabs change content below.

Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

Latest posts by Maureen Kelleher (see all)

  1 comment for “Let’s End the Admissions System that Forces Families to Pray for the High School of Their Choice

Comments are closed.