Starting today, students can apply for selective enrollment, magnet and other specialty schools, an annual ritual that sends many families scrambling for a shot at what are considered the city’s better schools.

This year, the district was supposed to debut a new single-application process that would mean students could apply for all schools in one place and then get one offer. The centralized system would be modeled on the application process now used in New York City and Boston. Last November, the Board of Education awarded the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice a $390,000 contract to help develop the new application.

CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler says CPS officials felt that they were implementing too many other initiatives, such as the common core and the longer school day, to also roll out the single high school application. She says it is now scheduled to be implemented next year. 

Though she says that the delay had nothing to do with unresolved issues, those intimate with the process say CPS is still working through topics such as how to incorporate charter schools into the mix. 

The specifics of how CPS’ single application system would work are not yet clear. But such a drastic change from the current process—in which students apply separately to selective enrollment schools, magnet schools, charter schools and specialty programs and can get accepted into one of each kind—will mean a significant shift.

In cities with a single-application process, students receive one offer to the highest-ranked school that they are admitted to, either through test scores or a lottery.

All high schools become schools of choice, even neighborhood high schools, and are put into the mix. Students can easily end up traveling across the city, though that is often the norm already in CPS since only half of students attend their neighborhood high school.

Questions on charters, neighborhood schools

Among the biggest unresolved issues with the new CPS process was how to incorporate charter schools and neighborhood high schools into the mix, say Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy. Broy served on the committee working on developing the application.

Charter schools currently accept students based on a lottery, but students may apply to many charter schools and get put on waiting lists. With a single application and a single offer, these waiting lists would disappear—and that could prove to be a problem, Broy says.

“So what would happen if a student listed their preferences as Northside Prep, Perspectives and Noble Street, in that order?” Broy says. “They didn’t get into Northside Prep or Perspectives, but get an offer from Noble Street. Now what if someone transfers out of Perspectives, but there’s no waiting list and no way to let the student at Noble Street know the seat is available?”

Plus, charter schools often use waiting lists as evidence that they are in demand. Yet, because each charter schools runs its own individual admissions process, students can be on multiple waiting lists, even after they have accepted a spot at another school.

Broy admits that some charter schools are worried that the single-application system will expose that they are not in demand.

Yet charter schools are under pressure to be a part of any central application process. For one, CEO Jean-Claude Brizard has complained that having so many applications for parents and students to fill out is frustrating and confusing. And last year, charter schools signed on to a compact with the district that states that “ideally” charter schools would be part of the application process. That compact brought charter schools a boost in per-pupil funding and money to pay for special education teachers.

Neighborhood schools are another issue. Because many of them have been struggling academically for years, it is assumed that few students will list them as a preference. Though they have long been seen as schools of last resort, making them the official default for students who get in nowhere else is a dicey proposition.

Broy says that the committee discussed the fact that principals at neighborhood high schools need time to market their programs before the single application is fully implemented.

8th-graders to get letter

Though the single application is delayed, the application process will include several new procedures this year. According the Office of Academic Enhancement, CPS will send every 8th-grader an eligibility letter, identifying what schools they could to apply to.

New York City has a similar procedure: The district looks at individual 7th-grade reading scores and divides students into the top third, middle third and lower third. The category that the student is in determines which schools they can apply to.

In CPS, eligibility will be determined by a student’s 7th-grade test scores and grades. But it’s still unclear whether the letters will only include information on whether students have a shot at a selective enrollment high school or program, or whether they also suggest charter and neighborhood schools to apply to.

The Office of Academic Enhancement’s website also says that an elementary guide to options will be available Monday, the day the process opens. However, the high school guide won’t be ready until later this month.

CPS no longer plans to put on the Options for Knowledge elementary and high school informational fairs. Instead, “detailed and informational PowerPoint Presentations” will be on the website.

Important CPS application process dates include:

  • October 8 – All applications available
  • November 5 – Testing begins for selective enrollment elementary schools
  • November 17 – Testing begins for selective enrollment high schools
  • December 14 – All applications due

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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