This piece is part of our interactive, Authorizer Showcases, which highlight how authorizers around the country are tackling obstacles related to access and accountability.
Good authorizers find solutions to barriers that prevent children from accessing all of the high-quality school options in their community.
For Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) Office of Innovation and Incubation Executive Director Mary Bradley and her team, this meant working diligently to get all of the city’s charter high schools to participate in the district’s plans to launch GoCPS, a new online application system.
Before the launch of GoCPS, Chicago eighth-graders and their families had to navigate a confusing and complex high school application process. There were different applications, timelines, and requirements for every choice the district offered: district-run high schools outside their neighborhood zone, charter high schools, and selective enrollment high schools. Through this decentralized process, some students would receive several acceptances, while others would receive none.
So when the plan to create a single, streamlined application process was shared internally with staff, Bradley knew charter schools had to be at the table. Doing so would create the best possible opportunities for families and students as they navigate the high school application process.
There are currently more than 40 charter and contract high schools serving nearly 25 percent of the district’s high school students.
“To truly level the playing field for CPS students and families, we knew we had to get each and every one of our charters to participate,” says Bradley.
It wasn’t easy. Here are several lessons Bradley recently offered a room full of authorizers:
- Buy-in requires listening and time. The process to get charter schools to buy in to the system started early. Over the course of five months, CPS held meetings with school leaders where they expressed the benefits of the system—that it was good for families—and listened to their feedback. The team would note their biggest concerns, and then return weeks later with solutions from the district to mitigate their worries. At the end of the day, there was more common ground than differences, as charters and the district share the concerns of any educator: how would this impact the students?
- Help parents through the culture shift. The district and charters did everything they could to support parents. This required extensive marketing and community engagement. One of the most important strategies was training eighth-grade counselors to be on the front line, helping families navigate the new process and rank the schools that would meet their students’ needs. The district also set up enrollment supports in high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools throughout the city, so that a family didn’t need to own a computer in order to participate in the new program.
- Start small, then expand. Getting the roll out right was critical. Starting with one grade was a strategic decision, which allowed the district to launch the program, evaluate its success using data, and create a plan to tweak and expand in the future.
But the hard work is already paying off. In its first year, more than 90 percent of Chicago’s eighth-graders used the online portal, with nearly two out of three students (59 percent) applying to both district-run and charter high schools. Eight out of ten students matched at one of their top three choices.
The system is fairer for students, too. Now, a student gets an offer and can choose whether to accept it, or enter into the second round. No longer can one student accept multiple offers, effectively filling multiple school seats until the first day of school.
More importantly, the data has quantified trends in the district that Bradley hopes her office can use to improve its work. “Not only does the data help the district point to what programs are working and where, but more importantly, it gives our office a roadmap so we can explore the gaps that exist and where we can help serve Chicago families better,” she concludes.