Best Elementary Schools: A Guide to the New Admissions Process

GETTING IN: What has changed about the admissions process—and how those changes affect your kindergartener’s chances of getting into a sought-after public school

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Two years ago, Chicago published a primer on gaining admittance to the city’s best public grade schools. Shortly thereafter, a court ruling made it illegal for Chicago Public Schools to continue using race-based criteria for deciding who gets into the city’s vaunted magnet program and the test-in “selective enrollment” elementary schools (what CPS used to call its gifted and classical schools). Now that the dust has settled a bit, here’s what has changed about the admissions process—and how those changes affect your kindergartener’s chances of getting a seat at one of the city’s sought-after public schools. (For the most part, that 2008 primer is still helpful.)

Is it easier or harder to get in? As it turns out, getting in is just as hard. The odds are still against you, so apply to as many schools as satisfy your criteria. Last year, Chicago’s 39 magnet elementary schools received 13,678 applications for 2,097 slots for the 2010–11 school year; the well-known magnets include Disney, Drummond, Franklin Fine Arts, Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, Inter-American, LaSalle Language Academy, Mayer, and Stone. The selective enrollment elementary schools got 18,259 applications for 1,211 spots; these include regional gifted centers such as Bell, Edison, Lenart, and Pritzker, as well as the classical schools—Decatur, McDade, Poe, and Skinner North and West.

Because CPS may no longer base admissions on self-reported racial designation, “socioeconomic tier” is the new proxy for achieving diversity in the classroom. The gifted and classical schools fill 40 percent of their classes with the top scorers on their admissions tests (gifted schools test for cognitive ability; classical schools test for academic achievement). The rest of the seats are evenly awarded to the highest scorers in four socio­economic tiers. The magnet schools (which don’t require testing) fill their seats this way: All siblings of current students will be admitted; using a computerized lottery, 40 percent of the remaining seats are given to students who live within a mile and a half of the school, and the rest are split equally among the four tiers.

How do I know which tier I’m in? Your socioeconomic tier is based on a complicated formula that takes your address and assigns it to a group defined by these census-tract-based variables: median family income, highest level of education achieved on average by adults, and percentages of single-parent households, owner-occupied homes, and non-English-speaking residents. You can find your tier at cpsoae.org: Under the “News” tab, look for a page titled “Instructions for Determining Your Census Tract and Group Number.” But, really, your tier assignment doesn’t matter much since each of the four tiers gets the same number of available seats.

What happened to “principal’s pick”? Under the old rules, this sole exception (also known as “principal’s discretion”) to the admissions process for the gifted, classical, and magnet programs let principals handpick students for a number of slots equal to 5 percent of the school’s total seats for the entry-level grade (usually kindergarten). Last year, CPS eliminated principal’s discretion for elementary schools; the school board will decide in September whether to reinstate the practice for the coming admissions season.

What are the important dates? The printed CPS directory, which includes the applications for the magnet and the selective enrollment schools, comes out on October 1st; the forms will also be available online at cpsoae.org. New this year, CPS is letting parents apply online for the selective enrollment elementary schools. All applications must be submitted by December 17th. If you don’t hear from a school by the following April 1st, call CPS at 773-553-2060.

Last year, CPS created a new process that took appeals from parents through the end of May; according to Abigayil Joseph, the head of CPS’s Office of Academic Enhancement, that process is under review, but, she says, some form of appeal will be available to parents. In the event of some error—for example, you suspect that one of your applications was lost in the mail—you will have more success with an appeal if you can prove that you applied by the deadline. If you submit a self-addressed, stamped post card with each application, the school will return the post card as a receipt. The school will also issue a receipt if you submit the application in person.

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