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App Helps Figure Odds for Chicago's Elite High School Seats

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Parents or guardians of Chicago Public School students who want to know the likelihood of their child getting into an elite public high school have faced a confounding situation.

Students who apply are rated on a 900-point scale based on academic and entrance exam performance. But the socioeconomic profile of where a family lives weighs in the decision, too, because the school system uses quotas for 70 percent of the openings. How could a family know where the student really stands, based on the quotas?

Now, there's an app—a web-based application—for that.

A team at Open City discovered data that explained the four-tier socioeconomic system used for admissions, and realized it could build a map that would help families quickly see their tier, based on their addresses.

For instance, families in Tier 1 geographical areas have a median income of $29,928; 63.4 percent of them are single-parent families; 28.3 percent own their homes; and 32.5 percent speak a language other than English.

Families who reside in a Tier 4 area have a median family income of $104,434; 22 percent are single-parent families; 59.8 percent own their homes; and 27.1 percent speak a language other than English. (The tier system is further detailed here.)

Selective schools look at top students in each tier as they are make decisions on the 70 percent of openings that are allotted this way. (The rest of the seats go to their highest-performing applicants, regardless of where they live in the city. The students that fill these city-wide seats tend to live in wealthier, more educated parts of town, according to Open City.)

By comparing a student's score with the previous year's cut-off score in that tier for the nine selective high schools, parents and guardians can get a good idea of the likelihood of their child being chosen for particular high schools.

"This is very complicated, and CPS isn't the best at explaining its 'complicatedness'," says Juan-Pablo Velez, a collaborator at Open City, the start-up that builds civic apps based on open government data.

"It's funny, it didn't take us that long to build the map—maybe five hours. Then we did research to put together an 'explainer' to accompany the map. Researching and writing that took twice as long," he said, noting that most of the information came from different sections of the school system's website.

Thus far, Open City has heard back via Twitter from "a handful of parents," Velez said. Reactions range from 'Thank you so much for making this useful tool,' to 'How will this help me get my kid into the school system? It's just going to help the well-off parents more'."

Velez said creating the free app is a starting point. The collaborators are looking for just this kind of feedback from parents to see what their "pain points" are in dealing with the school system, so Open City knows where to go with future developments. As they improve it, there could be a point where it becomes a value that people are willing to pay to use.

"Right now, it's a little 'inside baseball,' because that's the Chicago way. But it can also inspire people to see how this kind of tool could be useful, and imagine, 'Here's how we could use it in Boston or Muskegon for our government,'" Velez said.

"A lot of districts implement choice and charters. But it can be very confusing for parents about how to navigate this," he said. Promoting transparency is a first step.

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