Posted February 18, 2008–As Chicago Public Schools rethinks how it assigns and registers students in high school, the district may take cues from New York and Boston, cities that recently and radically transformed their assignment systems work.

In New York and Boston, high school admissions were overhauled to speed up the process of assigning students to schools and to increase the number of students who get into schools they prefer. In Chicago, the motivation is to eliminate enrollment creep, a phenomenon experienced most often by the least-sought after high schools, where students land when they have no place else to go.

Chicago officials, including Jimm Dispensa, head of the demographics and planning department, have contacted administrators from New York and Boston, as well as outside experts familiar with the East Coast approaches. This is what those cities are doing:

New York City

Streamlined system builds trust

In 2003, under then-new Chancellor Joel Klein, New York scrapped its overly complicated high school application system. District officials wanted to cut down on the nearly 30,000 freshmen who, in the previous year, were assigned to high schools not of their choosing.

Neil Dorosin, who heads the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice and helped design and manage the new system for the district, says Klein wanted to streamline a process that had bred mistrust among parents and offered district administrators little data on who’s supposed to go—and who wants to go—to which high schools.

“(Parents) said, ‘It stinks, it’s unpredictable,’ ” Dorosin says. Many wondered why their neighbors’ kids beat out their own children for a choice seat, even when their children’s test scores and GPAs were higher, he adds.

Many schools, he contends, “gamed” the admissions system by demanding perks from parents or looking too deeply into the academic backgrounds of potential students. This left the less desirable schools at a disadvantage and stockpiled special-needs students in less-sought after schools.

Now, nearly all New York 8th graders fill out the same application in December, listing their top 12 preferred high schools. Taken together, the district’s computer system “matches” each student’s preferences to the high schools willing to enroll them. Assignments are given in early spring.

New York has the biggest school choice system in the country, with nearly 100,000 students shopping for high schools each year. In addition to the district’s eight specialized high schools, which students must test into, there are over 500 programs from which to choose. Some employ screening mechanisms, built directly into the district’s matching system, such as test scores or school preferences based on interviews with parents and students; others admit students by pure random lottery. Zoned high schools also operate, granting priority to students from the neighborhood. Charters, alternative schools and special ed schools add to the complexity.

By switching to a single application and better informing underserved communities about how school choice works, the district has reduced the number of students who fail to submit an application. Asking students for a longer list of preferred schools and streamlining the matching system also dramatically reduced the number of students who get stuck in schools they do not want to attend.

In the first year of New York’s new assignment system, the number of students who were automatically assigned to schools that they did not choose fell from 30,000 to less than 3,000. Not all students, of course, get their top picks.

The system still has problems, according to Dorosin. Some schools, for instance, use interviews to screen potential students, which are difficult to administer fairly, he says. Also, New York maintained a separate application system for its elite selective schools, which causes some students to be admitted to more than one high school and slows down the entire choice system, he explains.


A simpler way to maximize choice

Boston recently rolled out a similar yet more straightforward system—one that allows students, but not high schools, to influence school assignments.

Under the old system, parents made a difficult calculus when shopping for a high school. Students who missed the cut for their top choice faced dramatically lower odds for getting into second or third choice schools. Savvy families maximized their chances by calculating the risks associated with ranking particular schools number one.

The reformed system does not penalize students who miss the cut on their top choice school. In what amounts to a master lottery, each student gets a random “priority” ranking that is used to cull through their preferences and make high school assignments in one sweep. If a student lives near a preferred high school, or has a sibling that is enrolled there, his or her priority standing increases automatically.

Except for a handful of specialty schools, Boston’s high schools have little say in the types of students they enroll. At its core, the system tries to give every student a spot in their most desired school.

“A school can’t say, ‘I’m looking for seven girls or three violinists,’ ” says district spokesman Chris Horan, who worked closely with the committee that set policy for Boston’s new assignment system.

Boston’s high school choice system is considerably smaller than New York’s. Excluding special education and alternative schools, there are 31 high schools—three elite schools that require students to pass entrance exams, seven “pilot” or semi-autonomous schools (three of these handle their own admissions process) and 21 regular schools that use citywide lotteries to pick students. The state also runs three charter high schools.

In January, the district sent out applications to more than 3,000 8th graders; nearly 85 percent of them returned it ranking as many high schools as they were interested in.

Then, in late February, a computer lottery assigns students to schools. Each will get a single assignment, and nearly everyone will be matched to a school that they listed on their application.

Those who do not turn in applications will be automatically assigned to nearby schools with open seats.

There are some complications, notes Horan. For instance, students invited to a selective high school can receive more than one assignment. Also, students can be put on wait lists for schools that they’ve ranked highly, and if they are later admitted, it leads to further admissions shuffling.

Boston capped wait lists in the past—rules that were chucked this year. Parents objected to the district having final say over their children’s chances for getting into their most preferred school, says Horan.

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