Decision day: What happens when students don’t get their first-choice Chicago high school

Eighth-grader Mia Paulus’ first choice for high school was Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy in Chicago’s Roseland community.

Last month, she said she was confident, but nervous at the same time, because she knew how tough it is to get in: “It’s like the lottery.”

But Mia didn’t get into Brooks nor the other two selective-enrollment schools she applied to. She’s heartbroken and stopped talking about process altogether, even to her friends at school and church. Her father, J.P. Paulus, said: “This whole process has sort of shut her down from wanting to communicate about the results.”

Friday is the deadline for eighth graders to accept offers from high schools in the first round of an emotionally taxing and competitive selection process that holds high stakes for families.

It’s a far-reaching ordeal that slices through all the city’s neighborhoods, resulting in elation and despair, and leaving many families trying to restore their teens shaken self-confidence.

More than 26,600 eighth-graders applied for admission to high schools via Chicago Public Schools’ online GoCPS platform, and just over half were offered a seat at their first choice.

But among those who sought entry to selective schools, only 16 percent got an offer from the school atop their list. And only three out of 10 landed an offer from any of the selective schools they applied to.

Mia, an aspiring astronaut at Burnside Scholastic Academy on the Far South Side, has an attractive fallback close to home. She likely will attend Dyett High School for the Arts, her father said. It has the city’s second-highest rating, Level 1, and the Paulus family recently bought a house nearby in Bronzeville, within the neighborhood school’s attendance boundaries, so Mia is guaranteed admission.

Thousands like Mia will end up at schools in their zone, a scenario some families go to great lengths to avoid. The proportion of high school students attending neighborhood high schools has declined from 27 percent to 23 percent in four years, and black students are the most likely to look elsewhere.

Related: What surprised one sociologist who studied Chicago high school admissions

Artist Tonika Johnson’s son was rejected from his first choice, Lane Technical College Preparatory High School, in Roscoe Village on the North Side. He did get an offer from the selective enrollment King College Prep High School in the Kenwood neighborhood on the South Side, and Johnson said it’s a good school, but would prefer a more diverse setting for her son than King, which is nearly all black.

She and her son are both leery of their designated neighborhood school, the new $85 million Englewood campus opening this fall, which will offer enticing options but also will have no track record.

“I know my son will be fine,” Johnson said. “However I can’t ignore the fact that this kind of selection process makes a particular population in Chicago more vulnerable than others, and that part is unfair. ”

“I put myself out there.”

Asking 13- and 14-year-olds to navigate choices that will shape their future is a huge expectation.

While teens are forming identities and making big decisions, “people at this age tend to not have mastered executive functioning — that is, the ability to anticipate, plan ahead, organize and coordinate actions toward a particular goal,” said Kate Phillippo, a researcher in urban education policy at Loyola University Chicago, who spoke to Chalkbeat Chicago in March and wrote a book on the subject.

Phillippo’s research showed that students from more affluent families got into their preferred schools far more often than students from less-affluent families.

In addition to school and social pressure, teens place high expectations on themselves to get into a good high school, which they are told is a stepping stone to a good college and career, and feel pressure to succeed from family.

“My mom, she genuinely cares about my future, but sometimes that pressure hits me,” said Simone Tyler, 13, who attends Kipling Elementary School in Washington Heights on the South Side. “A lot of my family didn’t make it in high school, they didn’t finish or they went into the Army, and I just want to make them proud.”

She was so worked up this application season that she broke down in tears one day in the school lunchroom.

The aspiring writer’s first choice, like Mia’s, was Brooks. She didn’t get in, but was relieved to be accepted at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood, which she heard has an excellent writing program.

She said students choosing high schools are “put in a very adult situation.”

“I really put myself out there,” she said. “When you apply to a high school, you’re allowing yourself to be vulnerable for that whole year. Sometimes being vulnerable hurts — but you do learn from it.”

She got help preparing for the complicated application process from High Jump, a partnership of private schools and foundations, which offers a two-year enrichment program to rising seventh graders with strong grades and standardized test scores. The students, who are low income, attend weekly classes at one of three sites, prepare for the selective-enrollment exam, and get help with applications to Chicago schools and private options.

High Jump participant Nancy Mejia, a 14-year-old at Seward Communication Arts Academy Elementary School, said that even though adults may tell children not to view the selection process as competition — it is. And it’s stressful.

“Some of my friends were applying to the same schools, so we were still two applicants who wanted that same spot,” said Nancy, who lives in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

She was accepted at two selective-enrollment schools, Whitney M. Young Magnet High School and Lindblom, but she’s thinking about attending Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School instead, because she’s interested in its International Baccalaureate program, a special track at the predominantly Latino neighborhood school on the Southwest Side.  

The IB program is the kind of in-demand option — along with dual-language and science-technology immersion programs, that Chicago is seeking to expand. The school district recently announced it is investing $32 million in such programs across six years to help 32 mostly neighborhood schools attract new families.

In the predominately white Jefferson Park community on the Far Northwest Side, Jeanne Warsaw said her eighth-grader at Stone Scholastic Academy decided to skip the application process and attend his neighborhood school — which automatically enrolls neighborhood children. Taft High is a Level-1 International Baccalaureate school.

“For us, I have to say, it’s been a breeze,” said Warsaw, who runs a social justice arts program. “I almost feel guilty because a lot of my good friends who are parents have been a nervous wreck about this process.”

Race and class have a lot to do with school choice. Even though the Chicago district is just 14 percent white and Asian, those students have disproportionate access to elite high schools and challenging academic programs, such as Advanced Placement courses, according to federal civil rights data.

Neighborhood schools in black and Latino communities, especially disinvested parts of the city with high rates of poverty and crime, often struggle with stigma that complicates their recruitment pitches to prospective students. 

Tonika Johnson plans to appeal to the Lane Tech principal for one of the few discretionary openings at the selective school, hoping her son can get the offer he didn’t get in the first round. But that feels like such a Hail Mary pass that she hesitated to tell him about it. She was worried about potentially setting him up for “another round of disappointment.”