Chicago’s high school competition: Percent of students who win spots in coveted campuses remains flat

The percent of Chicago eighth graders who secured their first choice of Chicago’s most competitive test-in high schools this year remained essentially flat, with only 15.6%  accepted to their first-choice school, compared with 16.2% last year, even as the overall number of students who applied for selective-enrollment schools dropped. 

The first round of applications to schools is the apex of the anxiety-provoking Olympics of school choice in Chicago. For the second year in a row, a districtwide online portal streamlined the application process and allowed researchers to compare student interest in different types of schools. 

In total, 23%  of applicants will get accepted into one of their top three selective-school choices, according to data provided Friday afternoon by Chicago Public Schools. The district planned to notify students Friday evening of their individual results.

Chicago has 11 selective-enrollment high schools, and seats at these schools are among the most competitive in the district. Students can rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in more than 130 schools  — and among those they can choose up to six selective enrollment schools — on a universal application system called GoCPS that Chicago rolled out last year.

The selective enrollment system is controversial. Some laud the city’s highly ranked and competitive schools, saying they are a crown jewel in Chicago’s education system. But others say the schools reinforce inequality by rewarding students who can spend money on test prep and tutors. 

Among applicants to all high schools, 53% of eighth-graders will get their first-choice school, a blip down from 54%  last year. Students rank selective-enrollment schools separately from other high school programs, such as the rapidly expanding International Baccalaureate curriculum, career technical programs, and arts programs. 

The district said 26,208 incoming freshmen participated in GoCPS applications this year, compared with 26,619 the previous year. 

All Chicago students are automatically zoned to a neighborhood school, and students always have the option to attend that school. 

“Nearly all CPS families are using GoCPS to find their ideal high school, and the district is pleased to see that the vast majority of students continue to receive their top school choices,” spokesperson Emily Bolton said in a release announcing the new figures.

While the district released the top line data publicly on Friday, students will find out between 5 p.m. and midnight Friday exactly which schools accepted them.

Families have two weeks to accept their Round 1 offer. Students can end up on waitlists for some popular programs, and receive calls from schools later in the spring. The exception are the competitive selective enrollment programs, which don’t run waitlists.

Students tended to apply to both charter and district-run high schools. Only 4%  applied only to charters, about the same as last year, and 38% of applicants applied exclusively to district-run schools.

The second-round process requires a new application, and several high schools with seats to fill usually offer open houses and tours in the spring in the hopes of recruiting incoming freshmen who may not have considered them the first time. 

How that will change under the new restrictions — schools will be closed through at least mid-April — remains to be seen. One option could be to change the timeline for the high school application process. 

“The CPS Office of Access and Enrollment is working to assess the impact of school closures on the remainder of the GoCPS high school application timeline and will communicate any other changes or adjustments as soon as possible,” Bolton said.