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Having so many school choices stressful for Chicago parents

Mayra Hernandez, left, and Fernando Diaz attended a Kids First Chicago workshop, offering parents information about school options, at the North Austin Library. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

Fernando Diaz couldn’t believe the number of school options available for his son Jairo.

To sort through all the possibilities, he did some research and took part in a workshop aimed at helping families pick the right school.

Allowing for some wiggle room since his top choices are highly competitive, Diaz put in applications for his son to 13 different schools.

Little Jairo isn’t preparing for college or even high school — he will turn 5 in April and start kindergarten in the fall.

The Chicago school system is a “district of choice.” That means the families of 380,000 Chicago Public Schools students have lots of options in addition to going to their neighborhood schools.

For the Diaz family, the selection could give Jairo a chance to explore interests beyond the offerings of his well-rated neighborhood school, Barry Elementary School in Belmont Cragin.

For others, like Shaundell Parker’s family in North Lawndale, the range of choices means she can transfer her son Damaria out of his current school, which she says doesn’t meet her standards. Parker has moved her fourth-grader once before, when she wasn’t happy with his school. She wasn’t necessarily set on keeping him near home, though, including Prescott Elementary School in Lincoln Park, about 10 miles away, among the schools she put in applications to.

The frenzy over getting into CPS’ most-coveted schools and programs ended Friday, when applications were due.

Having so many options can be overwhelming even for the savviest parents. Adding to the stress is that competition for the best programs is fierce.

Selective-enrollment schools and gifted programs require a special test and impressive grades. Citywide magnet schools focusing on art or language admit kids by lottery. Some open-enrollment schools let in kids from outside their normal geographic boundaries, space-permitting.

That’s all beside the separate deadlines and applications required for those considering the city’s privately operated though still government-funded charter schools.

“Families have an abundance of school options in Chicago, but, for many, finding access to the best options is overwhelming at best and, at worst, near-impossible,” said Daniel Anello, head of New Schools for Chicago, which started free Kids First Chicago workshops this year to help parents sort through it all. “There are nearly 100 different applications for high-schoolers and 250 different programs across all the various types of schools.

“We are genuinely trying to help families in communities that are so often underserved make the best possible decision on where they send their children to school based on what they want for their child and what school will be the best fit for their child.”

About half of children who attend a public school in Chicago do not attend their assigned neighborhood school, instead going to other schools managed by CPS or by charter operators, an Illinois Network of Charter Schools study found.

To help parents navigate the options, the Northside Parents Network, a paid-membership group, runs “CPS 101” workshops on how to figure out school differences, do research to find a good fit and apply. The two workshops this fall immediately sold out, spokeswoman Laura Baginski said, adding that high demand led them to plan two extra 2017 sessions.

At their school fair, Baginski said ”the most common question centered around neighborhood schools and how to know if yours is ‘good.’ ”

CPS just launched its own website with the University of Chicago, so prospective high-schoolers can compare offerings.

The free Kids First workshops have been attended by the families of 250 or more children, Anello estimates.

Shaundell Parker, 35, attended the Kids First Chicago workshop, a program that provides parents with information to help them choose the right school for their children. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times.
Shaundell Parker, 35, attended the Kids First Chicago workshop, a program that provides parents with information to help them choose the right school for their children. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times.

At the North Austin Public Library, Parker spent at least an hour with counselor Sean Schindl, looking at schools’ ratings over several years, making sure they were taking new students, then mapping each in relation to her home.

She was keen on nearby Webster Elementary, boasting CPS’ second highest rating.

“If they have leftover seats, you can apply and be entered into the lottery,” Schindl told her, adding it to her list, which also included in-demand Skinner Elementary and Catalyst Circle Rock Charter School. “This is about you building up some good options for your son. Apply to six, get into three of them, then you get to decide.”

At a table nearby, Diaz didn’t know that CPS has gifted programs for little kids. He considered whether that might be best for Jairo. Or maybe learning English alongside his grandparents’ native Spanish in Barry’s dual-language program.

Settling him in a good school will determine whether the Diazes build an addition to their home or take their salaries as engineers to the western suburbs.

“We love the city,” Diaz said but added, “Do I want to stay invested?”