What Chicago’s first year of unified enrollment tells us about what families want

Last year, Chicago adopted a online unified enrollment system for high schools. Families in Chicago can now search online to find a public school for their child, and, most importantly, apply directly on the website.

Chicago has over 250 high school programs across a 130 high schools. If families don’t know these options exist, or can’t navigate all of the different application processes, these choices aren’t really choices.

An online unified enrollment system can help families find a school that works for their child.

The University of Chicago just put out a research brief on the results of Chicago’s first year using a unified enrollment system. Full study here.

Chicago’s System is Easy to Use

The unified enrollment website is simple to use. You search by  location, performance, and program type. Here’s a screenshot from my search for a level 1+ (highest rated) IB school in Chicago.

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Some unified enrollment systems have opaque search systems, so it’s great to see Chicago’s system work so well. I’m sure this was part of the reason that over 90% of rising ninth grade students used the system.

80% of Chicago Families Received 1 of Their Top 3 Choices

Many big cities don’t have enough great public schools. Chicago is no different. So it’s alway a bit surprising to see so many families get one of their top choices, as I would have expected that most families would apply to the top dozen or so schools. This occurred to some extent: the most in demand schools averaged 10 applications for ever seat. Still, 51% of students got into their first choice. Families rank schools very differently from each other.

This is a also reminder that my preferences (and yours too!) differ from families living across Chicago. I’m not sure whether or not these preferences differ because of different values or different access to information. It’s probably a mix of both. But we should be careful to assume that others share our opinion of what makes a great public school.

What School Attributes are Correlated with High Demand?

Arts, career tech, and school rating were most correlated with high demand. Parents seem to respond to school specialization and the district’s performance labeling system.

It’s illuminating that both arts and career tech programs are in high demand. Presumably, these are very different kinds of schools. Again, different families really do want different types of schools. Meeting this diversity of family preferences is hard to achieve in a school system where every child attends her neighborhood school.

I don’t know whether it was general reputation or the district performance system that drove the performance based demand. Either way, it’s another sign that parents do care about performance. As can be seen below, while 32% of Chicago high schools receive a lower performance score (a “2” or a “3”), these schools are rarely ranked first.

performance chicago

Who Chooses Public Charter Schools?

29% of students from the lowest-income neighborhoods ranked a charter school as their top choice. Only 10% of students from wealthy neighborhoods chose charters.

For many low-income families, charters offer a better public education.

This family demand is supported by research. A report by the University of Chicago found that high school charters in Chicago outperform their traditional peers.

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A Few Schools Received Almost No Applicants

So far, Hirsch High School has zero accepted applicants; and only one rising freshman has chosen to attend Douglass High School.

It is good for this data to be public. Too often, school systems try to paper over the fact that nobody wants to attend some of their schools.

A more difficult issue is what to do about these schools. My preference is to replace under-enrolled schools with high-performing non-profit operated schools. Research has shown that, done well, this can provide students with better educational opportunities.

However, if the neighborhood has lost too much population, there might not be enough students to justify a school.

Chicago has around 40,000 ninth grade seats available to students, but only 26,000 high school students, leaving around a third of seats vacant.

Thank You to the Early Adopters 

Chicago is not the first city to adopt unified enrollment. These cities also use unified enrollment systems for at least some grades: Washington D.C., New York, Denver, Indianapolis, Camden, Newark, New Orleans.

These cities vary in size, performance, and politics.

But in being early adopters, they are helping us learn a lot about how to make enrollment easier for families.

They are also helping us learn a lot about what types of schools families want for their children.

Hopefully, these cities will continue to see success with their systems and other communities will follow.

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