While the Media Play Blind Men with the Elephant, GoCPS Marks a Win for Families

The ancient Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant comes to mind reading the coverage of the new report from the Chicago Consortium on School Research about Chicago’s universal enrollment system, GoCPS, which rolled out last year. Everyone found a different bit of the truth based on their own areas of interest.

The key finding is that GoCPS worked pretty well in its first year, with over 90 percent of incoming high school students using the system, over 50 percent getting their first choice and over 80 percent getting one of their top three choices. In the second round of applications (for those who missed the first round or declined an offer), the numbers were even better, with all but a handful of kids getting one of their top choices.

Nevertheless, reporters all found something different to highlight in the report. Crain’s, with its business focus, celebrated the system’s free market approach. As Greg Hinz wrote:

The gist of the report is that even in a bulky and at times agonizingly cumbersome system, in a city with enormous socioeconomic gaps, consumer choice works. Students and parents are voting with their feet in large numbers, and that’s a good thing.

WBEZ, which has chronicled the loss of neighborhood schools, including reporter Linda Lutton’s award-winning radio documentary on Englewood’s traumatized Harper High School, focused on the fact that some neighborhood schools got few if any applicants.

As Sarah Karp writes: “10 schools got virtually no interest from students, and after two rounds of offers, less than a dozen students officially claimed spots at each of those 10 schools.” Karp goes on to point out that more kids are likely to show up when school actually opens but the schools will still be under-enrolled.

Chalkbeat Chicago, the new kid in town, also focused on the high number of empty seats in Chicago high schools, some 14,000, and the variance in demand based on income levels. As Adeshina Emanuel writes:

Demand varies by income level, with students from low-income neighborhoods casting more applications than students from wealthier ones and applying in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools.

For the data nerds who want to dig deeper, Chalkbeat also published a database showing the number of applications for each Chicago high school.

The Tribune took a negative slant around the empty freshmen seats and followed up with a strongly worded editorial demanding a public debate over school closings. Under the headline, “When parents abandon CPS schools,” the editorial board writes:

CPS pours in resources to keep nearly deserted schools open even as students abandon them. Why? Because many people in neighborhoods defend their schools, whatever the quality and vitality.

The editorial further laments the lack of political courage that keeps the schools open: “Emanuel’s mayoral challengers are demanding that CPS not close more schools or allow expansion of popular charter schools. The opponents want more money spent to shore up struggling neighborhood schools. We understand that closing schools scares politicians because it upsets some parents (voters).”

The Chicago Sun-Times also had a somewhat tilted take on the report, blaming the new enrollment system for the empty seats and for ongoing segregation in a district that is less than 10 percent White. Under the headline, “Thousands of CPS high school seats unfilled despite new application process,” Alexandra Alliaga and Tanveer Ali quote activists saying:

The new system reinforces existing patterns of school segregation in the district, and projects it could further divert students from neighborhood schools that “primarily serve black and brown communities.

Lastly, WTTW gave a brief, fairly neutral overview of the report and features an interview with CPS CEO Janice Jackson, who points out that the data showing student preferences enables CPS to make, “Better policy decisions about where programs should go.”

This is the first incoming high school freshman class to use the new enrollment system, although CPS has had open enrollment in high schools for years. About three out of four CPS students currently attend high schools other than their neighborhood schools.

Media focus aside, with GoCPS, Chicago’s 8th-grade students and their families have more information about schools and less hassle applying than ever before. That’s a win from every angle.

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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.

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