One of every three freshmen seats in Chicago Public Schools classrooms remain unfilled less than three weeks before the school year is scheduled to begin, figures from the district’s new high school-enrollment system show.

In fact, the district projects more than 14,000 of its 40,000 seats for freshmen will go unfilled despite the new GoCPS application system, which was designed to make the at-times daunting high school-enrollment process easier and to help students match up with the 250 schools and programs with available seats. Students seeking admission to high schools for this upcoming academic year, which begins Sept. 4, were allowed to list — in order of preference — up to 20 schools on their applications. 

Still, most students ended up being matched with schools or programs high on their list, the CPS data shows. Slightly more than half got into their first choice, and 81 percent received an offer from one of their top three schools.

And the program had high overall participation in its first year, district officials said, with 91 percent of CPS eighth-graders, 24,500, completing an application. In addition 2,500 students applied after attending schools outside the district.

CEO Janice Jackson called the system a success and said the new system “worked as intended.”

“There was a high level of engagement from our students and families, [and] most of them were matched with their top choices, which I found to be very encouraging,” she said. This “validates that parents are highly engaged in the success of their children, and that options are available for their students.”

She said the empty seats represent recent trends of declining enrollment in CPS.

“That’s nothing new,” she said.

While enrollment figures for 2018-19 won’t be available until the 20th day of school attendance, the total number of students in the district last year, 371,000, was 5.7 percent fewer than in 2015-16.

Most popular programs

Perhaps not surprisingly, the selective-enrollment programs at Jones College Prep, Lane Tech High School and Whitney Young Magnet High School were the three-most coveted among incoming freshmen. Exactly 4,500 students listed Jones, which is downtown, as their first choice; just 11 percent got offers. 

In total, 19 percent of all programs had more than 10 times as many applications as available seats, according to a study of GoCPS data by the UChicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

Six neighborhood high schools — Solorio, Taft, Amundsen, Kenwood, Mather, and North-Grand — were also in high demand. All of those schools each saw hundreds of students from across the city accept offers as non-neighborhood students. 

Loading...

But on the other end of the spectrum were the 8 percent of schools that had fewer applicants than seats, the consortium’s analysis found.

Hirsch, in Greater Grand Crossing, saw just 153 students listed it among their top 20 picks. Kelvyn Park, in Hermosa, got just 220 total applicants.

Edward Tilden Career Community Academy High School, in Back of the Yards, saw just six of 37 applicants accept offers to attend as freshmen. The school is still expected to have a freshman enrollment of 36 after neighborhood kids who didn’t use the new system enroll. But that’s just 5 percent of the estimated 727 freshmen seats the school has available.

And after two rounds of GoCPS applications, there are still 300 students who didn’t receive an offer from any school, though 84 percent of them were put on a waitlist, and all are guaranteed a spot at their neighborhood schools.

“Obviously we’re working through enrollment issues in the district, [but] we do also know that we have seats available in the district schools and programs, and we want to make sure we’re matching students and families with those seats where appropriate,” Jackson said.

She noted that of the students that received an offer from both a selective enrollment school and a nonselective enrollment choice program, 23 percent chose the nonselective program — a signal to CPS to invest in neighborhood schools and nonselective programs, Jackson said.

Distribution issues

Still, education activists said that the system doesn’t stop trends in the district that has left many schools struggling to keep up.

“I’m disturbed that through GoCPS, which appears to be a neutral mechanism, that the district is going to be able to alleviate their responsibility of the disinvestment in neighborhood public high schools on the South and West side,” said Alexios Rosario-Moore, policy and programs manager at Generation All, a group which seeks to revitalize neighborhood high schools.

Rosario-Moore said although a high level of participation in the new system is a good sign, with two-thirds of students accepting an offer to their top-ranked school, there are still far too many kids who face challenges attending schools far from home.

“There will be kids on the South Side that apply to North Side schools with a good reputation but then realize they can’t make transportation work,” Rosario-Moore.

He said ultimately the new system reinforces existing patterns of school segregation in the district, and projects it could further divert students from neighborhood schools “that primarily serve black and brown communities.”

“It allows the district to argue that parents and families are choosing to essentially disinvest from the neighborhood public high schools that are anchors for our community,” he said.

Tracy Struck-Vasquez will send her son, Colten Vasquez, to Curie High School after he was taken off the waitlist. | Alex Arriaga

Tracy Struck-Vasquez will send her son, Colten Vasquez, to Curie High School after he was taken off the waitlist. | Alex Arriaga

‘Mixed feelings’

Tracy Struck-Vasquez said her son Colten Vasquez, of Brighton Park, applied to two schools — his first choice, Curie High School, in Archer Heights, and Kelly, his neighborhood school. He was accepted at Kelly and was initially waitlisted at Curie, even though she and his older brother are alumni. Curie, however, made him an offer of admission a week ago.

“We dropped everything and ran over,” Struck-Vasquez said. “There are not enough art programs at Kelly that could allow him to show off his talent, and because … Brighton Park is not the greatest neighborhood, he’ll be away from certain kids that I know are trouble.”

Parent Julia Puente said a counselor at Rowe Middle School in Noble Square closely guided her and her daughter as she researched various schools based on their location, rating and size of the school. She completed the GoCPS application online and got an offer to her first choice, ITW David Speer Academy — a Noble charter school.

“Rowe is part of the Noble Network, so we were looking for something similar,” Puente said. Her daughter visited her four top schools and “that’s the one she liked most.”

Still, she said she would have preferred if her daughter had the opportunity to apply to several schools and make a decision based on multiple offers.

“She was having mixed feelings, but because she got her number one she had no choice, even if she changed her mind,” she said. “You sign something stating you won’t transfer to another Noble school, so if something happened and she didn’t like it she’d have to go to a neighborhood school.”

The neighborhood school her daughter would be assigned to is Steinmetz High School on the West Side. But going there was never an option, Puente said.

“Maybe it’s just the stigma of what I always hear of neighborhood schools, but if she didn’t go to the school she wanted we would have gone to a private [school]. I would even be willing to move to the suburbs,” Puente said.