in the numbers



See how our strategies are impacting the Chicago Public Schools' Educational Ecosystem.




In 2004, Kids First Chicago set out to improve outcomes for all public-school students by addressing broad needs of the education ecosystem.

We did this initially by introducing school choice with an investment of $100 million to support 80 new schools, many of which were charter.

Since the introduction of choice, graduation rates in Chicago have increased over 20 percentage points; ACT scores have increased nearly two points; and reading and math scores in elementary schools have improved at rates that rank in the top of urban districts nationally.

While choice is prevalent, access to high-quality seats is not. Despite incredible progress, 49,984 kids are still trapped in failing schools. Tens of thousands of students languish in mid-performing schools, and more than 6,000 students drop out each year. 25% of dropouts came from only 10 of the 120+ high schools.

These facts are startling in the face of progress made. In 2015, we engaged in an organizational restructure. We recognized that the market had shifted and our strategies needed to shift as well.


While our overarching goals have remained constant—to ensure that the marketplace operates effectively and efficiently for families—our current strategies are designed to ensure that families continue to have the options they want, that schools are high-quality, and that policies reflect a “kids-first” mindset.

This ecosystem-focused work serves as the second wave of improving outcomes and dramatically reducing the number of students who end up trapped in low-quality school seats.

We focus on the three areas that will transform Chicago into a world leader in public education:

  1. We empower parents to identify, navigate, and advocate for quality public schools for their kids
  2. With parents’ help we shape education policy to better support their families.
  3. We support the improvement of middle performing schools, creating better opportunities for kids across the district.

A healthy, efficient ecosystem will allow great schools to thrive.




Students moved to higher quality seats across the district.


Charter students moved to higher quality seats as a direct result of Kids First Chicago.



Schools moved from low and mid-range to high-quality performance.


Students on a path to high-quality schools by improving mid-performers.


Despite remarkable progress, we must address remaining inequities.


In late 2016, we began a comprehensive review of school quality and performance data of all Chicago Public Schools with the aim of both highlighting areas where the district has improved in recent years and calling on all stakeholders and Chicago residents to take renewed action to improve quality and equity within Chicago Public Schools.

Our report—Who is sitting in those seats?—compares student and school performance information from 2011 to 2017. There are over 371,000 students in Chicago Public Schools. Although there are significantly less low-quality schools now than in 2011, there are still many under-performing schools that are providing nearly 50,000 students with a “failing seat.”

When we ask, “Who is sitting in those seats?,” we find that far too many “failing seats” are located in communities with high poverty concentration – and large numbers of “failing seats” are disproportionately provided to African American children in CPS. In fact:

  • One in four African American students is enrolled in a school with a “failing seat,” compared to two in twenty-five Hispanic students, and just two in one hundred white students.
  • CPS’s nearly 50,000 “failing seats” are highly concentrated in predominantly African American and Hispanic communities, with four communities – Austin, Englewood, Near West Side, and West Englewood – having 25% of Chicago’s failing schools.

We also call upon CPS and all partners to consider the following actions towards ensuring that every child in Chicago is provided with a high-quality education:

  1. Develop a regional analysis of enrollment and quality seats.
  2. Ensure a clear and equitable accountability policy that leverages SQRP.
  3. Develop accessible guidelines and conditions to address school performance.
  4. Involve the community in school actions.
  5. Improve access and transparency to schools and programs.
  6. Provide families with greater transparency on school quality.


The overall number of "failing seats" has dropped significantly across the district between 2011 and 2017.





A kids first chicago enrollment coordinator helps a chicago parent find a school for their child. 

In 2015, Kids First Chicago (under our previous organizational name, New Schools for Chicago name) went through an organizational “re-boot” to determine the next phase of work needed to ensure that every child has access to a high-quality school.

After extensive parent polling, we learned that parents had options, but needed better access to those options and transparency when it came to understanding school performance.

As we continued to work directly with parents—providing free enrollment workshops & school quality training—universal enrollment or a “common application” bubbled to the surface over and over.

At the same time, as partners to the district, we knew CPS was actively engaged in considering a shift towards a common application at the high-school level.

Together we determined that while there are hundreds of choices, not everyone had equal access to high-quality options.

From there we set out on a course of action that would bridge the gap between "grasstops" and "grassroots" and create a fairer and more easily navigable system for families at the high-school level. 

To support the ecosystem holistically we:

  • Collected Parent feedback from across the district & provided platforms for parents to voice their concerns.

  • Commissioned the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice to conduct parent focus groups and present a comprehensive report on findings.

  • Provided ongoing project management support for CPS to successfully implement a common application. 

It took a combination of direct parent engagement, project management and follow-through—provided to the district by Kids First Chicago—to make a common application  a reality.




In January 2017, we partnered with Chicago Public Schools in organizing 10 parent focus groups. Neil Dorosin of The Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice (IIPSC) facilitated the conversations at all focus groups. 


  1. Chicago families are not getting the information they need about schools and programs, and therefore cannot participate in the process of selecting those schools and programs.
  2. Families are largely left to their own devices in determining the subset of schools that represent good choices for their child.
  3. The act of applying to schools and programs in Chicago is cumbersome and complicated.
  4. Parents are uncomfortable with the way choice results are determined and communicated. They want better and more reliable communication, explanations for results, and more information on and a clear set of rules to follow regarding waitlists.
  5. There is support among parents for a Universal Application and a single-best-offer process for allocating seats.
I never knew about an enrollment process.
In high school, I just went to the neighborhood high school...I just didn’t know there were a lot of options for different types of schools—charter, public etc. Some parents are lost. They don’t know where to start…
— Focus group parent



In April 2017, the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously in favor of moving to a single application for all public high schools in the city. This decision comes just after the recently released report from the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice (IIPSC) and Kids First Chicago (known at the time as New Schools for Chicago) outlining the feedback and recommendations of parents from across the city. 

The decision was a historic win for children and families, as the single application will provide increased access to high-quality schools for families, and move schools to one notification deadline—improving stability within the district. Three Kids First Chicago speakers, two students from Plato Elementary and a mom whose child is now enrolled at a Noble Network campus, spoke at the meeting. The parent concluded her remarks by delivering a stack of more than 470 petitions from supporters in favor of a single application.  

Under the new process, families can apply to any of their public-school options in one place. This includes traditional neighborhood, magnet, military, and participating charter schools, as well as special programs like IB and CTE. 

Our response to tackle the “broken” process illustrates the core organizational strengths that we have developed over the last year. In response to parents’ calls to action, we:

  •  Sought out national subject-matter expertise;
  •  Researched and produced recommendations for district leadership;
  • Provided transparent digestible information to parents;
  • Activated parent voice in advocating for change;
  • Created opportunities for district leadership to hear directly from parents;
  • Offered trainings for schools and community-based partners; and
  • Provided direct project management support for CPS to ensure smooth implementation.

Our activities underscore the value of having an objective, “kids-first” partner—like us—solving a major pain point for families.

GoCPS’s high school application officially launched on October 10, 2017, providing 26,000 rising 9th graders with fairer access to high-quality schools. 

Our Kids First Chicago team ramped up its efforts within communities and schools, and we launched a highly targeted online and social media campaign to reach families before the end of December.