GoCPS easy to learn, but new application process needs work: study

About 47 percent of black students were enrolled at a top-rated high school last year, compared to 70 percent of Latino students and 90 percent of white students.

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Logo at Chicago Public Schools headquarters.

Chicago Public Schools headquarters, 42 W. Madiston St.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Families have quickly caught on to Chicago Public Schools’ new online high school application system — and most are snagging one of their top-three choices — but it hasn’t improved access to high-quality schools for low-income and African American students.

That’s according to a study released Thursday by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, which scrutinized the 2017 launch of GoCPS, for students who entered the ninth grade this school year.

About 93 percent of CPS’ roughly 26,000 eighth graders used the GoCPS portal to apply to schools across the city, along with nearly 2,700 students from outside the district, researchers found.

Almost every one received an offer, with 81 percent matching with their first, second or third choice.

Black students and those from lower-income neighborhoods applied to more schools on average, but were less likely to rank a highly rated school in their top choices, the study found.

And while students from those groups were among the most likely to receive a top-three choice, they were less likely to enroll in schools that hold the district’s highest quality ratings — a pattern that predates the GoCPS process, researchers noted.

One advocate said students could be both listing lower quality schools in their top three choices and ultimately enrolling at one of them because of a lack of good options near where they live.

About half of lower income ninth graders were enrolled at Level 1 or 1+ schools. Overall, 47 percent of black students ended up at top-rated schools, compared to 70 percent of Latino students and 90 percent of white students — figures that stayed about the same compared to the year before GoCPS launched.

About a quarter of black students were enrolled at schools with CPS’ lowest quality ratings, compared to 8 percent of Latino students and 3 percent of white students.

Those numbers skew against district-wide demographics. About 37 percent of CPS students are black, 47 percent Hispanic and 11 percent white.

“Our findings suggest that some students may face barriers to enrollment in particular types of programs,” Federal Reserve research advisor Lisa Barrow said. “However, the data do not tell us why families make the application and enrollment decisions that they do.”

One potential stumbling block to enrollment for many minority students were post-application requirements at certain schools, such as mandatory information sessions or auditions, researchers found. Fewer than half of those applicants completed the next steps, rendering them ineligible.

The district said the findings “merit additional research so we can evaluate it from an equity standpoint.

“GoCPS was designed to inform families about their options and make it easy for them to apply to high schools and we are encouraged by the report’s findings, which show that families are highly engaged and invested in this process,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said. “This research has provided an unprecedented look into families’ choices and trends and we are eager to learn more about families’ preferences, accessibility and equity as we continue this process.” 

In addition to the convenience of a centralized, online system after decades of paper applications that varied by school, the district touted GoCPS as a way to provide equity and even the playing field for low-income students of color.

The district says it expects families to become more familiar with the GoCPS process every year, “which will help increase equity of access.”

Daniel Anello, CEO of the non-profit education group Kids First Chicago that has helped the district analyze GoCPS, said students might not have listed as many top-rated schools in their rankings because of the lack of high-quality options in their own neighborhoods. Research by his group found that students of color are stuck with some of the longest commute times in the city, often so they can attend higher-quality schools. The problem represents deep-seated issues that can’t be solved by smoother online application processes.

“If you conflate the system which is meant to provide better access with the quality of offerings, that’s dangerous,” Anello said. “There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done making sure there are high-quality options in all neighborhoods.” 

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