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CPS Magnet Lottery Leaves Local Residents Scrambling

By Chloe Riley | April 9, 2013 6:59am
 Annie Cue and her daughter Sofia. Cue is frustrated by the magnet school lottery process.
Annie Cue and her daughter Sofia. Cue is frustrated by the magnet school lottery process.
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Cue Family

NEAR WEST SIDE — Just 5 percent of neighborhood applicants to Andrew Jackson Language Academy were offered coveted spots in the school's kindergarten class next year, and with competition to get into two other nearby magnet schools almost as steep, many Near West Side families are pondering a move to the suburbs.

Jackson, which attracted more citywide applications than any other Chicago Public Schools magnet in Chicago, received 195 applicants for just 10 neighborhood spots, according to district data. Last year, the school gave offers to 12 neighborhood students, or 7.2 percent of the 166 that applied. 

The competition at two other magnets in the neighborhood — STEM and Galileo — was also intense, with less than 12 percent of applicants winning offers late last month to about a dozen open neighborhood seats at each school. 

“It’s a bummer,” said Annie Cue, whose 5-year-old daughter was not accepted into any of the Near West Side magnets, including Jackson, at 1340 W. Harrison St. , which is just blocks from her home. “It’s crazy how our lives depend on this crazy lottery.”

Though she is currently on the waitlist for the schools, Cue, a stay-at-home mom, said she and her husband are seriously considering moving to the western suburbs if her daughter is not offered a spot off the waitlist soon. 

Mathew Ditto, principal at Jackson, did not return calls seeking comment.

There was 16 seats at the school offered to citywide residents, or 1.5 percent of the 1,082 applicants. The number of applicants for next fall totaled 100 more than last year.

The largest number of seats in Jackson's two kindergarten classes, 32, was awarded to current students' siblings, who are guaranteed admission.

While neighborhood students have preference in gaining admission to the magnets, the large number of rejections from Jackson in recent years as the neighborhood grew led residents to push for the opening of STEM Magnet at the former Jefferson Elementary School building at 1522 W. Fillmore St.

But just a year after it opened, competition is already intense for the school's 13 proximity seats for next year.

“These seats are like winning the real lottery,” principal Maria McManus said. “It’s hard. It’s really, really hard to get a good seat.”

McManus said she has been very upfront with parents about their chances of getting into the school at open houses. The school also received 542 applications for 19 citywide spots. All other seats went to siblings.

“Opening better quality schools is something CPS is going to have to look into," McManus said, acknowledging the need in the district. "I guess it’s something that parents are going to have to demand.”

Part of the problem is many families on the Near West Side do not consider the neighborhood school, Smyth Elementary, located south of Roosevelt Road near public housing at 1059 W. 13th St., a viable option. The Level Three school is on academic probation: just 7.3 percent of eighth-graders exceed state standards, compared to nearly 50 percent at Jackson. It also lacks diversity, as more than 90 percent of its students are African American and low income. 

Dennis O’Neill, executive director of Connecting4Communities, a Near West Side neighborhood group, said the diversity issue is a catch-22: Smyth would become more diverse if families from the better-off parts of the neighborhood would send their kids there, but many won't send their kids there because the school isn't diverse yet. He said test scores at the school have gone up in each of the past three years.

He also said CPS should do more to fix up the school and publicize it.

“It’s just a matter of getting some things done there to change people’s perceptions of what that school is,” he said.

Smyth parent Lisa Kulisek, who is vice chair of the local school council, said Smyth is “under-advertised and under-supported” by CPS.

Kulisek, whose daughter attends a pre-K program at Smyth, said her daughter will stay at the school next year if she doesn't get a spot at any of the neighborhood magnets.

While she is upset by the "insane" and "unethical" CPS lottery process since she believes all students deserve a good quality education, she believes Smyth "is a perfectly viable option." She praised Smyth's International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which focuses on global education.

“It has a lot to offer,” Kulisek said of Smyth. “I feel lucky and a little bit guilty that other people don’t know.”