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Selective Enrollment High School Admissions Breaks Kids. Now’s the Time to Fix This Broken System.

In early March, we held parent-teacher conferences for the ACERO Charter School Network. For my 7th graders, this was the last opportunity to solidify their selective enrollment high school admissions chances.  At these conferences, I showed parents which Selective Enrollment High Schools (SEHS) their students qualified for, using a calculation tool provided by the district. 

My conference with the Linares family was very difficult. When they realized that their son Jose didn’t qualify for any SEHS, even though he was in the top quartile for NWEA, they were shocked. We created a plan that was daunting, yet doable. It involved Jose giving up some time before and after school and even during lunch. The whole Linares family jumped in excitedly and Jose began to show slight improvement the following week …and then schools closed for the year.

Selective Enrollment Represents Hope, But Now There’s Uncertainty

Selective Enrollment High Schools “offer an accelerated program to meet the needs of Chicago’s most academically advanced students.” For students who live low-income neighborhoods where high schools may leave much to be desired, SEHS represent the hope for a better future. Many of my students are poised to become first-generation college students. They need the resources of SEHS counselors and teachers to help ensure that they get into and, more importantly, succeed in college.

Selective enrollment high school admissions are based on a 900-point scale. NWEA scores count for 300 points, and seventh grade grades for another 300. The final 300 points come from the SEHS exam, which assesses student knowledge of eighth-grade math and language skills. This is a rigid system that has been in place since 2014. 

However, with schools closed until the end of the year, the Spring NWEA has been canceled.  CPS and a number of charters are grading students on a Pass/Incomplete scale. I am bombarded with questions about what the parameters for acceptance to SEHS will be for my 7th graders. As disruptive as it is, the pandemic is the opportunity for the district to rethink its policies, step up, and start looking at the whole student. 

If Colleges Can Evaluate the Whole Student, Why Can’t CPS?

The SEHS requirements have never included anything about who the student is; there is no personal essay, no teacher recommendation, and no analysis of 8th grade performance.  And yet, according to US News and World Report, strong college applicants involve themselves in multiple extracurriculars throughout high school. Most importantly, “good colleges” believe that applicants should experience failures as “it lends an authenticity to their candidacy” and forces students to justify these failures. 

If the nation’s top colleges and universities can analyze the whole student, why can’t CPS? The SEHS application process is going to have to change for next year’s 8th graders. So now let’s include more about the whole student. The whole package could include the entrance exam, a CV, grades from the first semester of eighth grade, an essay and a teacher recommendation. CPS should ask teachers to write a two-part recommendation. Part one would rate students’ abilities; part two would be a free-form letter. All Chicago Catholic school teacher recommendations already follow this format. By providing a CV, applicants can demonstrate their well-roundedness and the ways they will add to the high school community.

Since grades do not truly exist right now, students could submit a midyear report card.  Finally, CPS should ask applicants to submit a personal essay that demonstrates the resilience they showed during this trying time.

Let’s Not Limit Jose’s Future

I don’t know what will happen to Jose.  If CPS chooses to follow the same selective enrollment high school admissions guidelines as before, but using the Winter NWEA instead of the Spring and just looking at Q1 and Q2 grades, Jose doesn’t stand a chance. We should not limit his future because CPS believes it would take too much effort to change the system. 

Over my seven years of teaching in Chicago, I have watched countless students break because of the broken CPS Selective Enrollment system. CPS finally has the opportunity to fix the broken system before even more of the city’s top teenagers suffer.  Students are having a difficult enough time with managing the challenges they face now. Don’t limit their future as well.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash.

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Krista Siems Wilson

Krista Siems Wilson

Krista Siems Wilson is a 7th and 8th grade math teacher at ACERO Charter Schools-SPC Daniel Zizumbo Campus in Chicago and a 2019-20 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow.

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