Winning the Chicago magnet school lottery

Elementary school deadline is Jan. 16 By Mary Galligan

Frank Pinc / Chicago Parent Getting your child into a magnet school could help them target their education. The deadline for elementary applications is Jan. 16.

Shopping around this holiday season for kindergarten programs for next fall? If you want to get your child into one of Chicago’s public elementary magnet schools, set aside time now for the application process before you get to another item on your holiday wish list. The deadline for this uphill challenge is fast approaching and it’s akin to applying for admission to Harvard.

When my husband and I undertook the challenge a few years ago on behalf of our son, Joey, we didn’t realize just how tough it was going to be. Oh, sure, we had read about Chicagoans who push their preschoolers to perform in play groups for the snooty private schools and heard stories about others who call their aldermen for help, but these were public schools we were approaching. We didn’t have to connive, grovel or kiss up. Or did we?

The basic process is spelled out for parents on the Chicago Public Schools’ magnet programs Web site: www.chicagomagnetprograms.org. It all looks so simple. There are 32 magnet schools in Chicago. The deadline for all applications to elementary magnet schools is Jan. 16. (The high school deadline is Dec. 19.) You can apply to all the schools in which you are interested and you can download the application form from the Web site.

That’s when the process starts getting tricky. Magnet schools accept students from throughout the city and must reflect diverse racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Computerized lotteries are conducted to make sure that all children have an equal chance. The computer randomly selects students, by race and by gender, to fill the spaces in each grade. In addition, an elementary magnet school may accept up to 30 percent of its students from those who reside in the nearby neighborhood (1½-mile radius) through a proximity lottery. And some magnet schools have sibling lotteries, where siblings get preference-up to 45 percent of all entering students may enter through the sibling lottery.

For parents, these rules and conditions can end up causing loads of frustration. You want to do something to help your child. Here are some tips I’ve culled from our own experience and that of other parents who have been down this road.

• Do your research. Find out what schools offer the programs that meet your child’s needs and where your family will best fit. Not every magnet school offers foreign languages or classical programs. Don’t expect them to on a public school budget. These principals are masters of juggling Board of Education funds with grants and lots of volunteer parents help to make their schools successful. They can’t work miracles, though. Some magnet schools are for academically advanced students and require admissions testing. If your child needs transportation, be aware that for most magnet schools, bus service is provided only if the student lives more than 1½ miles from the school, but less than six. That might limit your choices. You can check out test scores and other information online at http://statereportcards.cps.k12.il.us.

• Apply to several schools and make yourself known to the principals of your top choices. Many magnet schools conduct tours and open houses in the fall. Take time to attend these and write a thank-you letter to the principal afterwards, telling why you think your child will be a good fit and saying that you and your spouse will be active participants in the school. Leverage any contacts you have with parents whose children already attend these schools. Principals have some leeway in a small percentage of student slots, as long as they meet the requirements on race and gender.

• Be patient. If your child isn’t accepted in March, just wait. Some parents aren’t notified until May or June. So have a back-up plan-a nearby private school or better-than-average neighborhood school-and then try again next year. Most of the applications are at the entry-level grades: kindergarten, first grade and ninth grade, for magnet high schools. Your child may have better luck coming in as a second-grader than in the highly competitive kindergarten lottery.

• Consider the magnet cluster programs. Magnet cluster schools are neighborhood schools with programs that focus on particular academic areas, such as math and science, fine and performing arts and literature. Also consider the International Baccalaureate programs that are available throughout Chicago.

• Get involved in the schools. Some parents offer to volunteer at magnet schools while their children are still in preschool. That doesn’t always guarantee that you’ll win the lottery but it’s a good way to see how the schools operate and meet the teachers, the principal and other parents.

If it seems like too much trouble, remember your children. This is their education at stake. Also, consider this is good practice for the high school application process. By comparison, kindergarten is a piece of cake.

Mary Galligan is a writer living in Chicago with her husband and son who attends Hawthorne Scholastic Academy.

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