By Juan Perez Jr.

As of last month, not a single incoming ninth-grader had accepted an invitation to attend Hirsch High School in Chicago's Grand Crossing neighborhood when classes begin in September. Only one rising freshman took an offer to attend Douglass High School in South Austin.

Hirsch and Douglass were part of a new Chicago Public Schools online application that prompted junior high graduates to rank their most desired high schools out of hundreds of programs.

According to a study released Thursday from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the computerized system streamlined the city's complex high school admissions process in its first year.

But researchers also concluded that years of declining enrollment have left thousands of ninth-grade seats empty.

What's more, the school district's own application numbers and ninth-grade enrollment estimates for the fast-approaching fall semester show a familiar collection of district-operated high schools continuing to struggle with low demand in some of the city's most underserved neighborhoods.

"There clearly are schools that are struggling, there clearly are schools that don't have enough enrollment to offer a comprehensive high school program," said Lisa Barrow, a Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago economist who co-wrote the consortium's study.

Overall, CPS predicts some 26,300 freshmen will enroll in classes when the 2018-19 school year begins next month.

CPS officials stress that enrollment at individual schools is expected to fluctuate after classes begin, because the district predicts some students will enroll in their neighborhood school outside of the electronic application process.

Researchers and community groups are also awaiting more detailed data that'll arrive after the start of classes to better determine how many students actually enroll in neighborhood-based programs, how far they travel and how frequently they transfer in and out of schools.

All that means a full picture of enrollment trends is still developing.

But the early figures illustrate one consequence of the city's decision to dramatically expand the number of high school options that families can choose from, amid more than a decade of plummeting overall enrollment.

"The preliminary findings from this report are encouraging: families are highly engaged and making important decisions about their children's education," CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a statement. "This research is providing us with an unprecedented look into families' choices, programs, and trends, and we look forward to receiving additional research and insights after students enroll in the fall."

CPS predicts a scant 50 freshmen will ultimately enroll in classes at Hirsch, a desperately underenrolled South Side school that already only offers a bare-bones curriculum to its predominantly African-American students. And CPS expects just 12 ninth-graders will enroll at Douglass this year.

Each school has roughly 300 general education seats available to freshmen, according to the district.

"Twelve students is too small for one class, let alone a suite of high school courses in terms of staffing," Barrow said.

Researchers concluded more than 90 percent of incoming CPS freshmen used the district's GoCPS electronic application to choose from more than 270 programs housed in roughly 130 high schools that are open to freshmen this fall.

Researchers also estimate roughly 20,000 ninth-grade seats remain unfilled in programs across CPS.

About 7,000 students are expected to enroll in their neighborhood schools, perhaps because they rejected high school offers provided through the electronic application or did not participate in the process.

Still, researchers said approximately 13,000 seats will remain empty and "reflect excess capacity in CPS due to several years of declining enrollment," as opposed to problems with the GoCPS system.

"I think it highlights the probability that CPS needs to reduce capacity, or drum up a lot more business," study author Barrow said.

"But we are probably coming to the point where we have to think hard about where the seats are, where the population is, and how we can make a better match between the capacity we have and the number of students that are actually enrolling. Hopefully these data will help CPS make good decisions about that."

CPS officials launched the online high school application system in 2017 as part of a stated effort to simplify an often frustrating and opaque process for students and their families.

Under the system, students who want to attend either a charter school or a district-operated building -- other than the one they're assigned based on where they live -- file an electronic application that ranks their preferences.

Students receive a single offer to attend a school that corresponds with their choices, qualifications and available seats. Once a student accepts an offer, he or she won't be considered for admission elsewhere.

Students who filed a separate application to enter one of the district's competitive academic programs receive up to two offers -- one for the selective school and one for a nonselective school. Students who are not happy with their offer can file another application. Rejecting the second offer would send students to their designated neighborhood high school.

Researchers' initial findings show that arts programs, career and technical education programs and schools with high district performance ratings tended to have higher demand. General education and military programs or schools with low performance ratings were more likely to have low demand.

"If we're really thinking equity in the long term, I think this kind of data hopefully will prompt CPS to think about what it's doing for those underperforming schools that are always going to attract some students," said Beatriz Ponce de Leon, executive director of the Generation All education advocacy group, which has called for efforts to salvage traditionally operated neighborhood high schools.

"Rather than jump to close a school because it's underenrolled or because of declining enrollment -- in some cases it might be inevitable, but how do you have that conversation with communities in a more honest and transparent way so you can make decisions about what that looks like?" she said.

Ponce de Leon pointed to data crunched by consortium researchers that showed roughly half of low-performing, special education or English-learning students ranked general education high school programs as their top choices.

"I think what this shows is these more vulnerable students, first of all, are choosing general education programs more, and they're choosing and ending up matched to them more," she said. "Does that mean that we are clustering these students in schools even more so than before?"

Earlier this year, CPS said 129 schools that have suffered sharp enrollment declines and struggled to provide a basic education will share an additional $10 million to $15 million to protect against staff or program cuts.

Overall, though, researchers were confident the online application process has worked as designed.

"You can argue about elements of the system you might think are not fair or shouldn't be set up that way," Barrow said. "But it basically took what were all of the requirements for eligibility and requirements and executed the match the way CPS said they were going to do it."

(c)2018 the Chicago Tribune