Posted February 18, 2008–Chicago Public School’s multimillion dollar High School Transformation project is forcing the district to confront a long-standing, but quiet problem: Hundreds of freshmen don’t register until weeks after the first day of school.

In Chicago, a district with one of the shortest school days and years in the nation, this phenomenon hits especially hard at schools where many students are starting out behind. At these schools, students lose out on instruction time and teachers must backtrack on lessons and do more to get kids up to speed.

“It is a huge, huge problem,” CPS CEO Arne Duncan says.

Prodded by the head of the transformation initiative, district officials are taking steps to confront the issue, Duncan says. Among those steps: A complete overhaul of the timeline and process for applying to and getting into high schools. (See sidebar)

Duncan also is toying with the idea of having freshmen start two to three weeks early, though that notion is still in the brainstorming stage.

The problem of late registrants rose to the forefront as the district began implementing its systemwide high school reform effort, which began just over a year ago and so far has at least $80 million committed to it by the district and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. A large part of the initiative focuses on ramping up classroom instruction with intensive teacher training, new curricula and resources.

A special Catalyst Chicago report analyzing the effort so far—to be released in March—describes transformation as it is taking place at Marshall High School in the West Side’s East Garfield Park neighborhood. There, freshman enrollment rose from 85 on the first day to 322 in the fifth week.

As a result, many teachers didn’t present serious lessons for weeks into the school year, all the while worried about not keeping up with the prescribed curriculum.

While districtwide enrollment data do not show such dramatic enrollment creep, the data do show that many other neighborhood high schools struggle with the problem. In 17 high schools—all of them low-performing—enrollment increased by more than 10 percent after the first week of school. By stark contrast, enrollment creep at selective schools was virtually non-existent after the initial week.

For instance, Robeson High School’s enrollment rose by 228 students following the first week of school up through December, while Payton, a selective school on the north side, only got two additional students during that time.

Eight of the high schools most affected by late registrations were created when the district implemented a previous reform that broke up large high schools into smaller ones. These small schools at Orr, South Shore and Bowen wind up having seismic enrollment shifts—as much 17 percent in a school of 488—over the course of a school year. Research has found that because these schools lack control over enrollment, it has been difficult for teachers to improve instruction.

Amy Ellifritz, a first-year English teacher at Orr’s Mose Vines (who just found out she will have to reapply for her job as part of yet another district reform), says in the first weeks of school, teachers try to lay down the rules and establish the routines.

“It is the time you get to know the students,” she says. “(Late arrivals) almost ruin it for everyone else.”

Allan Alson, head of the transformation effort, acknowledges the difficulties. “It makes it hard for the teachers and it makes it hard for the kids,” says Alson.

Family circumstances hinder enrollment

The reasons for enrollment creep are varied.

Marshall’s Principal Juan Gardner says sometimes parents have not gotten their children ready to enroll on time; for instance, immunizations aren’t up to date or a parent doesn’t have money to buy the school uniform of khaki pants and maroon polo shirt.

“We can help them on all these issues if they just come in,” Gardner says. “But they don’t know that, and they keep their children home.”

Shirley Ewings, the principal at Beidler Elementary, says too many of her students think it isn’t cool to show up for the first day, or even in the first few weeks.

“They have to do something to make it appealing,” she says.

At Farragut High School—where 253 students arrived late, adding 12 percent to the school’s enrollment—teams of counselors, administrators and teachers took to the streets in September to track down students who had failed to register even though their 8th grade files had arrived. Each of the six teams had 20 to 25 homes to visit, says Farragut counselor Elise Remond.

In some cases, parents told the teams that students were not registered because the family would be moving, Redmond reports. Some other parents, however, were not pushing their sons or daughters to attend school, and the students themselves were not motivated, she adds. “It goes back to parental involvement and preparing for the first day,” Remond says.

In a few instances, she says students were already attending high school elsewhere, but the elementary school had mistakenly sent files to the wrong school.

Assignment before leaving 8th grade

Late registration is also a side effect of the current high school admissions process. Chicago boasts a huge system of high school choice, with students free to compete for seats in selective schools, magnet programs or charters.

Elementary schools usually help students figure out where and how to apply for high school. But much of the application process, touring of schools and registering is left to students and parents to navigate.

Unless a student informs his or her elementary school that they are going to a magnet or selective high school, the school is supposed to send 8th-grade records to the neighborhood high school in June. But parents still need to formally register students—by bringing in immunization records, proof of address and birth certificates—before a class schedule is generated for them.

Some elementary schools invite neighborhood high schools to visit and register incoming freshmen every spring. Ames Middle School in Logan Square does as much with Kelyvn Park High School. But in most cases, parents are expected to follow up by visiting high schools during the spring or summer, or go to freshman orientation and register.

Yet, come the first day of school, main offices in many high schools are crowded with students and parents attempting to sign up.

Under a new student assignment system, all 8th graders will be assigned to high schools and will have until April to let their elementary schools know if they are going to attend somewhere else. The goal is to get the vast majority of students registered for high school before 8th-grade graduation.

The process will force high schools to be accountable for connecting with these students over the summer, and on the first day of school.

It also should help the district get a firmer handle on freshman enrollment. Alson notes that when the district under-projects enrollment in schools, it means that teachers are hired late or shuffled around. High School Transformation, which starts out in freshmen classes and moves up with the students, has intense teacher training over the summer. But every year, the shuffling means that some teachers are assigned too late to attend training.

Navigating school choice

Principals say changing the procedure for applying, being assigned and registering for high school will be an improvement. But some point to the whole system of choice as the reason for the late registrants.

What ends up happening, they say, is that students leave 8th grade without a spot in a specialty high school, but still hoping against hope to get in.

A principal from one of the small schools at Orr on the West Side says his school is left in a bad predicament. The principal, who declined to be identified, says that students end up at his school, but don’t really want to be there.

“They come to this school and the only people they see are all the fools from the elementary school,” he says.

This principal says the situation has worsened since the infusion of charter schools in the West Side’s Humboldt Park area. Now, not only are top students siphoned away by the district’s selective schools, but motivated students with average performance go to charter schools.

His school is not part of the transformation initiative, but Orr was recently named a “turnaround” school, meaning that he will be fired and all of his staff will have to reapply for their jobs. Even so, he still worries that the school will continue to be a last resort option and that student achievement will not increase.

This is what’s happening at Beidler, says Ewings. Eighth graders are supposed to feed into Marshall, yet most of them want to go to Al Raby, a small school that accepts students through the lottery.

Discouraged, those students not accepted to Al Raby don’t run to their neighborhood school.

But Duncan believes in school choice and says the goal is eventually to make every high school one that students want to go to.

In addition to new high school admission procedures, Duncan is implementing programs to ease the transition from elementary to high school. The district has met with elementary school principals and counselors to press them to provide more guidance to 8th graders, who will be allowed one day out of school this spring to visit their prospective high school.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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