July 23, 2024

Home Inspection

Home Inspection, Primary Monitoring for Your Home

Residency checks for Chicago-area high schools

8 min read

LaKeisha Crutcher’s apartment was just three blocks from Kenwood Academy High School, which is why she was surprised at the hoops she had to jump through to register her son at the South Side public school.

In addition to her lease and electric bill, school officials came to her home to confirm her teenage son really lived there — a practice Kenwood says is routine for students who live in the school’s attendance boundaries and happens in suburbs like Oak Park but is rare at other public high schools in the city.

“I thought it was a violation of my rights,” Crutcher said. Before her son, who is now a junior, began as a freshman, two men from the school came to her home. According to Crutcher, one of the men stepped inside her front door, saw family photos on the walls and decided he had seen enough to confirm their residency. In other cases at Kenwood and in Oak Park, parents describe officials entering their child’s bedroom and surveying the art on the walls or clothes in the closet. Kenwood’s principal said school officials rarely enter a child’s bedroom.

On the district level, the inspector general for Chicago Public Schools is responsible for, among other duties, investigating allegations that families don’t live in the city, as required. This was highlighted in a report last month that found a Lincolnwood family improperly sent their kids to highly sought-after CPS schools, including Northside College Prep. But at each school, individual principals can decide to conduct home visits to confirm neighborhood students live within the attendance boundaries, CPS said in a statement.

Sign for Kenwood Academy High School
Kenwood Academy High School located at 5015 S. Blackstone Ave. in the Woodlawn neighborhood. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

At many Chicago high schools, especially on the South and West sides, steady enrollment declines have made the need to check where students live effectively moot. And, increasingly, students don’t attend the school their address is zoned for — the so-called “neighborhood school” where they are guaranteed a seat. In Chicago, 70% of kids go to a high school other than the one near their home.

But Kenwood is different. Known for its robust academics, accomplished sports teams and quality music program, the school near the University of Chicago — which serves both neighborhood and magnet students — is in high demand among South Side families who lack other desirable options. Last year, there were nearly 3,000 applications for seats in Kenwood’s magnet programs but just 400 offers made, according to CPS data. This is how students from outside the neighborhood can get in.

Given the interest, the administration says it takes verifying eligibility for the neighborhood program seriously to avoid families fraudulently claiming they live in the boundaries. Kenwood Principal Karen Calloway said it’s school policy to visit the homes of all incoming neighborhood students who are registering.

In total, Kenwood says it conducts about 150 home visits a year. In a written statement, Calloway said “seeing the family and/or student living at the reported residence serves as evidence.”

Calloway said she has seen people trying to falsely claim a neighborhood spot at Kenwood over the last two decades, and she has also discovered enrolled students who lied on their registration forms. Some families also have moved outside the boundaries after their children enrolled. Just last week, it was revealed that the inspector general for CPS found five Kenwood basketball players falsified proof of where they live or provided inaccurate home addresses.

But multiple parents described the home inspection process as intrusive, and WBEZ found the policy is inconsistently applied. Among the parents we spoke to for this article, families who rent all described being subject to a home visit, while several homeowning parents said no school official ever visited their residence as part of the enrollment process. In a statement, Kenwood said it conducts the visits for both renters and homeowners.

Kenwood mom Terri Smith owns her home in Hyde Park. She said the school did not conduct a home visit as part of the process to enroll her daughter. Before the information about the basketball players became public, she said she had heard of home visits happening at Kenwood but said she thinks “it’s a terrible use of resources.”

“I find that terribly invasive to come to your home and have to see your child’s sleeping quarters,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t let the people in my house.”

John Bartlett, the executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, had not heard of the policy, but he said “it makes sense that CPS would target renters.”

“There is a big stigma against renters in this country,” Bartlett said in an email. “Renters often get blamed for problems or people assume renters are scammers.”

Kenwood Academy High School Principal Karen Calloway speaks at Gage Park High School on Oct. 24, 2022.
Kenwood Academy High School Principal Karen Calloway said school officials visit about 150 homes and apartments a year to confirm students live in the attendance boundaries. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

But not all parents oppose the policy. For Marshall Mays, Kenwood pride runs deep. She graduated from the school and so did her mother. Her daughter, who is a sophomore, is a third-generation Bronco, which Mays loves to tell people. She said when you graduate from Kenwood, the school spirit is akin to what other people might feel about their college or a sorority or fraternity they join.

She never could imagine her daughter going anywhere except Kenwood, so when it came time to enroll her in high school, Mays was fine with obliging with the school’s policies. In fact, when the school official arrived at the family’s Hyde Park rental to do a home check, Mays knew him from her own school days.

“He was like, where does the student sleep? And he just kind of walked in and looked around to see if it was consistent and it pretty much was with a 14-year-old girl,” she said.

Mays said the need for a home check didn’t surprise her — and while it was perhaps a bit inconvenient, she didn’t object.

“I guess if you’re admitted to the school under the premise that you live in the neighborhood, and they’re saving space for neighborhood students to be able to get into the school, I guess it doesn’t bother me that it is required,” she said.

The stakes around residency rules were highlighted last week when the five players, along with three coaches, on Kenwood’s boys basketball team were suspended from the state tournament after evidence from an ongoing CPS inspector general investigation found they were in violation of residency rules, which could include students living outside the attendance boundaries or outside Chicago. According to a statement from the Illinois High School Association, which governs high school sports, the CPS IG investigation found multiple players falsified items, such as utility bills, to meet Kenwood’s residency requirements. Others provided inaccurate home addresses.

WBEZ asked CPS if any of the players had received a home visit from a Kenwood official before enrolling. The district would not comment on an ongoing investigation.

The lengths to get — and protect — seats at certain schools

Kenwood’s principal said the issue of parents falsely claiming residency doesn’t happen only in her community, and parents and staff at other schools shared examples of residency fraud with WBEZ.

But Kenwood appears to be unique among the most sought-after neighborhood schools in making home inspections a routine part of enrollment. WBEZ called seven sought-after neighborhood high schools across Chicago and spoke to clerks and enrollment managers. Only one, Solorio Academy High School on the Southwest Side, said home inspections are done regularly.

The district said in an email to WBEZ that some schools that do home visits include Solorio, as well as Farragut, Lincoln Park and Morgan Park, though it noted that visits at Lincoln Park are rare and only done if there are questions about submitted documentation. But in WBEZ’s calls to those schools, only Lincoln Park said district officials could potentially do a home inspection. A neighborhood parent at Lincoln Park also told WBEZ they hadn’t had a home inspection.

These home visits go beyond the proof of current address that CPS says on its website is required for enrollment. That proof includes documents, such as a utility bill, driver’s license, deed, employer identification card, voter registration card or another government ID.

Home visits to confirm residency do occur in districts other than CPS, like in neighboring Oak Park.

Gabriela Olivera is the enrollment and registrar manager at Oak Park and River Forest High School. She oversees a team of three investigators whose backgrounds include law enforcement and working on the Postal Service’s fraud-detection team. Last year, they conducted about 180 home visits, Olivera said. Things like returned mail, a call from a landlord or an anonymous tip can prompt an investigation.

Around 2016, Megan Rische was renting a home in Oak Park, where she lived with her four kids. One night, they were heading out of the house to dinner when two men with clipboards approached. They identified themselves as from the school district but never asked to come inside.

“It seems like that sufficed for them, just seeing us all there together,” she said.

Rische knew the district conducted home visits, but year after year of registering her kids and she had never heard of it actually happening, so the brief encounter surprised her.

Olivera said being rigorous is necessary. She said she has seen it all, from forged utility bills and leases to a parent who had someone pretend to be their landlord when the school called to confirm their residency. Occasionally, she said, parents will falsely claim to be homeless.

“We have to make sure that only students that live in the district attend school,” she said, calling her team’s work an “obligation toward the taxpayers.”

Chinella Robinson poses in the family's Hyde Park apartment in February 2024.
Kenwood Academy parent Chinella Robinson in the family’s Hyde Park apartment. She says the lack of equal opportunities in Chicago schools forces families into making difficult choices. Marc Monaghan for WBEZ

Back in Chicago, if CPS discovers a family lives outside the boundaries of the neighborhood school their child is attending, the student can be unenrolled and transferred to their neighborhood school, the district said in a statement.

Recently, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s school board put a bright spotlight on neighborhood schools when it signaled in December a plan to move away from Chicago’s “school choice” system.

Kenwood parents who live near the school expressed an appreciation for the independence their kid gets from being able to walk to a quality school. Marcella Ellis, whose daughter is a freshman at Kenwood, said she is in favor of the move toward neighborhood schools and is discouraged by Hyde Park parents who drive their kids to a selective enrollment school when they have a solid option in Kenwood.

Kenwood parents are keenly aware that neighborhood schools are far from created equal. It’s why parents often intentionally rent within the school boundaries.

Chinella Robinson, a Kenwood mom who is running for a seat on the Local School Council in the April election and recently started working at the education advocacy group Raise Your Hand, said the current system forces parents to make hard decisions on behalf of their kids.

“If all of our schools had equal opportunities, equal classes, equal amenities, people wouldn’t have to lie to have their children go to other schools,” Robinson told WBEZ in early February.

“If we had equality in schools, I don’t think that this would even be a thing.”

Courtney Kueppers is a reporter at WBEZ.

WBEZ editor Kate Grossman contributed reporting to this story.


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