Frustrated Parents: When The Good Schools Are Not Enough

Here is a modern tale of woe and frustration. Parents have children. Parents pay taxes. Parents would like their children to benefit from the payment of taxes by going to the best of the taxpayer-funded schools in their city. Problem. There are too many children for the available slots. Oh, and the rules keep changing:

Every year, the competition for a precious spot in [Chicago’s] top schools is fierce. Many neighborhood schools have significantly lower test scores, and parents see the competitive and magnet programs as their only option for a good public education.

But the odds of their children scoring a seat in one of the top schools are slim. And the nerve-racking admissions dance has become even more complicated by the fact that the rules keep changing — twice in the last two years.

So, how serious is the discrepancy between those who desire to go and the available seats?

The bottom line is that there are many more children than spots at the elite schools. Last year, 13,065 teens took a test for 2,942 seats at the selective-enrollment high schools. For top selective-enrollment elementary schools, 10,050 students applied for 1,787 seats. Magnet schools, which choose students via computerized lottery, saw 31,185 applications for 3,352 spots.

Back to those rule changes for a minute:

Last year, the guidelines were rewritten to take an applicant’s race out of the equation and replace it with socioeconomic factors from the applicant’s neighborhood. This year, further changes to increase diversity were approved at a board meeting just a month before the Dec. 17 application deadline for the 2011-12 school year.

Even parents who thought they mastered the old system are at a loss, some wondering if their younger children will have the same opportunities as older siblings.

Oh, and they had to take race out of the equation because of some rulings. But they are still trying to ensure that the disadvantaged get a built in advantage.

How well do the new criteria they are using work? Well, it depends on where one stands.

Last year, 40 percent of openings in selective schools were awarded based solely on academic merit, and the rest were divided among top-scoring students in the four socioeconomic tiers. This year, the ratio has been changed to 30-to-70. Parents such as David Galowich feel the new rules are punishing kids who score well simply because they live in a decent neighborhood.

His youngest son applied to Whitney Young last year as a sixth-grader, hoping to get into an early acceptance program that his older brother had gotten into just two years before. But despite earning higher scores than his older brother, he didn’t get in, Galowich said, and he wonders what his odds will be like for high school.

“Kids he knows with less-than-stellar scores got in just because of geography,” said Galowich, a Lincoln Park resident. “It’s really frustrating seeing a child like my son who has worked his tail off not get in, only to have people less qualified get in.”

But see, that’s where one gets into trouble. People are not qualified because of their achievements–they are qualified for their lack of achievements.

If parents in Chicago had real choices about how to spend their education dollars, would it not be likely that more children would receive better educations? I realize that it may not be humanly possible for every school to be a magnet school, but should that not be the goal?