Audit of Chicago selective and magnet school admissions finds lax oversight, sparks curb of principal power

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An audit of selective and magnet school admissions in CPS found that principals had wide discretion to hand-pick students, and CEO Ron Huberman now plans to sharply curb  the principals’ power over admissions.

An audit of selective and magnet school admissions in CPS found that
principals had wide discretion to hand-pick students, and CEO Ron
Huberman now plans to sharply curb the principals’ power over
admissions.

On Wednesday, Huberman released a copy of the audit and announced
changes to the admissions process. Before this year, principals of magnet and selective enrollment schools had the discretion to pick 5
percent of their student body. Earlier this year, he announced

a moratorium

on magnet schools using this discretion, which Huberman said he was going to continue.

Yet Huberman rejected the most far-reaching and concrete of the
independent auditor’s recommendations: Do away with principal discretion
all together.

Principals of the district’s nine selective enrollment high schools will
continue to have discretion in admissions. “We determined that we need
it to ensure a diverse student body,” Huberman said, noting that he was
referring to a more global definition of diversity, not just racial
diversity.

Officially, principals of selective and magnet schools were allowed to
hand-pick 5 percent of their students. But in reality, the audit
revealed that they had much more discretion. Huberman refused to say how
many principals had abused their power.

Principals were able to enroll students who had not met admissions
requirements, allow mid-year and summer transfers of whatever student
they wanted, and pick students from the waiting list in any order. No
high-level officials checked up to ensure that someone powerful from the
outside was trying to influence the process—allegations that surfaced
last year.

Principals didn’t even use the same criteria to determine what “5
percent discretion” meant, with some principals selecting a number of
students equal to 5 percent of the school’s total enrollment and others 5
percent of the number of seats available.

At the nine selective high schools, principals will be able to choose
about 150 students for this fall’s incoming class. The new policy states
that the 5 percent will equal the previous year’s freshman enrollment
on the 20th day of school. The new criteria principals must use to
choose students are: unique skills or ability, activities demonstrating
social responsibility, extenuating circumstances and demonstrated
ability to overcome hardship. Siblings will no longer be one of the
criteria considered.

Huberman said his administration is taking multiple steps to ensure that
all students have a fair shot of being chosen, and that the admissions
process for magnet and selective schools is not compromised.

For one, the student information system, known as IMPACT, will now
prevent principals from enrolling students who had not been accepted
through the standard procedure, which includes an application and
entrance exam. Rocks said in the past principals had the technical
ability to do this and they, on occasion, did.

Also, the Office of Academic Enhancement will handle all transfers, not
principals. Open seats will be filled through official waiting lists,
which will stay viable throughout the school year and not be discarded
in September, as they had been in the past.

Principals will have to report any contact made on behalf of a student
and certify that no undue influence was exercised in the selection. CPS
employees and politicians will still be able to reach out on behalf of
students, but only if they know something specific about the student’s
ability or special circumstance.

 All decisions by principals will be reviewed by a panel from Academic
Enhancement.

Rocks admitted that there’s still room for wrongdoing. “No system could
ultimately stop it,” he said. The audit was done by the firm Crowe
Horwath and will cost the district about $13,000.

 Since July, the Inspector General has been investigating allegations
that politicians and other high-profile outsiders unfairly used clout to
get students admitted to the top-scoring high schools. Huberman and
General Counsel Patrick Rocks refused to provide any details about that
investigation, or even general information about the level of abuse by
selective enrollment principals. They promised that the results of the
investigation will be made public soon.

 But Huberman did comment on the lack of safeguards to make sure that
the admissions process had integrity. “I am not surprised that there was
gaming of the system considering the lack of controls,” he said.

Rocks said some of the problems identified by the audit were related to
the improprieties being investigated.