Chicago Public Schools: Principals' Clout Limited As Aldermen Admit To Lobbying

05/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Getting in to one of Chicago's magnet or selective public high schools -- the most elite public schools in the city -- is never easy. Except, that is, if you happen to know a Chicago alderman.

That will change, Chicago Public Schools head Ron Huberman announced Thursday, saying he plans to overhaul the so-called "principals' picks" system.

Currently, principals at the selective schools can choose up to five percent of their students by hand. Until now, many of these students failed to meet the basic requirements for admission to the schools. Principals could pick students from the waiting list in any order, and could allow mid-year and summer transfers of whatever students they wanted, according to education blog Catalyst Notebook.

Politics played no small part in the exceptional admissions. The Sun-Times reports that two aldermen acknowledged that their daughters were admitted to Whitney Young Magnet after they lobbied that school's principal.

Huberman announced a moratorium on principal picks at magnet schools earlier this year, and announced Thursday that it would continue. Selective-admissions schools can still use the picks, but there will be a host of new restrictions on them. Catalyst Notebook explains:

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.

...

[T]he 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. [General Counsel Patrick] 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.

Chicago Public Radio adds that all principal picks will be be reviewed by CPS and by an outside auditor.