School and education tips for Chicago

Tips to Navigate the Chicago Education Scene

chicago-schools-real-estateWaiting lists, Magnet schools, selective enrollment, open enrollment, gifted, classical: these are some of the most stress-inducing words parents of school-aged children can hear. And, if you’ve just purchased a home in a new city or neighborhood, you’ve got the added burden of not knowing where to begin to find the right school for your family.

Choosing a school used to be simple. You went to the public, private, or faith-based school in your neighborhood. But now, with so many Chicago Public School classifications and limited space in the city, how is a parent supposed to figure out what program is right for their child? In addition, every school may have a different admissions process. Some require testing, visits, and strict deadlines, while others depend on availability or just simply the luck of the draw.

A great school system can influence where you decide to live. As we’ve discussed above, in Chicago, the public school system (CPS) includes a wide variety of programs for students attending Pre-K, Elementary School, and High School. Terri knows how important it is to understand the different programs offered and that every child is different. Whether you prefer, public, private or faith-based, she’s here to help you navigate the education system and answer your questions.

Here, we provide some basic tips to help you determine the right fit for your family.

Where to Begin

Before parents begin their search, they should consider a number of school selection factors and how each will affect their children and their family as a whole. These factors may include the learning style of each child, location of and transportation to the different schools, services for special needs, availability of before and after school programs, and class size. In addition, parents should research each school’s average test scores, community and parental involvement, standards for student behavior and how technology is used in the school. Once parents have prioritized their needs, it’s time for the search to begin.

School Websites
First, check out the school’s website. Look at their mission statement, curriculum, and activities. What are their admissions requirements? Pay special attention to dates for application deadlines, open houses, and special events. Many private and faith-based programs require visits and parent interviews at specific times of the year.

If the school has an e-mail list, add your name so you’ll know about upcoming events and deadlines.

Open Houses
Most schools have open houses. Make sure to attend and introduce yourself to other parents and your child to other kids. Let them know you are new to the school and the area. Ask about what after school activities their children like to do. If the students participate in a soccer league or park district program, register your child so he has a chance to make friends outside of school. This is also a great way to learn about the different schools in the area.

Looking at High Schools? Attend as many open houses as you can. This is great opportunity to see the school, meet the teachers and talk to students and parents about curriculum, extracurricular activities, sports programs, tuition, financial aid, etc. Open houses usually take place in October and November. Depending on the popularity of the school, expect to wait in long lines inside and outside.

High School Fairs
If your elementary school holds a high school fair, make sure to attend. This can be a relaxing way to check out different options, as well as speak to students representing their school. Take the time to speak with them about what they like and dislike about their high school. Also ask them what they might have done differently to prepare themselves for high school. This is also a great opportunity to talk to your elementary school alumni. Often they represent the high schools in attendance. You can also ask your elementary school’s counselor for a list of high schools where alumni are currently enrolled.
Shadow Programs
Shadow programs are mainly offered to 7th and 8th grade students exploring high school options, but some elementary schools offer shadow days as well. Students are allowed to experience a “day in the life” of a high school or elementary school student, including everything from morning announcements and all classes, to lunch, intramural sports, and even assemblies.

For high schools, students will usually shadow with a freshman. If you know someone at the school, you can request to shadow with that person. Some high schools have certain days set aside just for specific elementary schools. Check with your grade school to see if there is a scheduled day so your child can shadow with his classmates. Most elementary schools offer a number of excused absences to participate in shadow programs. Consider using days your elementary school has off to shadow at high schools. Always take into account your child’s exam schedule, field trips, etc., before planning a shadow day. Some high schools only allow 8th graders to shadow, while others have particular times of the year for 7th graders. Shadow days begin as early as September and run throughout the year. Check each school’s website to register or call the admissions director. Days fill up fast, so make sure to do it soon. Many schools have specific dress codes and will expect your child to follow their guidelines. Remember, this is also an opportunity for your child to make an impression.

Don’t limit your child to just one school. There are many options in the city from public and catholic, to independent and performing arts related schools.

Schedule a Tour
Once you’ve narrowed down your list, contact each school for a tour. Many have monthly, organized tours that are led by administrators or current parents. Use this opportunity to speak with parents, teachers, administrators and if possible, students. Make sure to tour the classrooms, the cafeteria, library, and outdoor play area. Look to see if teachers and students exude the qualities that are important to you.
Learn More with Play Dates
Some schools have family ambassadors to help with the admissions process. Ask the principal to put you in contact with a family with a child the same age as your own. Schedule a play date or an opportunity to meet. Visit the park near the school you are considering to give your child another chance to meet students and for you to get to know other parents.
Special Events
When on a school’s website, look for events open to the public. Events could include fairs, theater productions, band, choir, sports, etc. Many schools also offer summer camps. This is a great opportunity to visit the school and learn more about their students and faculty.

Fall is a great time to learn more about a high school’s sports program. Whether it’s a varsity football game, track meet, soccer match or volleyball game, you can get a good feel for the school’s campus, as well as student and parent involvement. Some schools have sports and performing arts related nights specifically for kids in 6th – 8th grade. In addition, over holiday breaks and summer vacation, many schools offer academic, sport, and performance camps for elementary school students. This is another excellent way for your child to get to know the school, the teacher and students.

Be Flexible
For many schools, there are not enough seats for the number of applicants. So, be prepared. You might end up on a waiting list. Also, be flexible – if you wanted full day Pre-K, but they can only offer a half day or 3-day a week spot, take it if you can and make sure you are on the list for a full day spot.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. And, don’t assume higher tuition means a better education. Consider all your options, including location. Sometimes, the small neighborhood school could be the best thing for your child. Or, a school outside of your area might have an opening. Don’t be afraid to look beyond your neighborhood. In Chicago, children travel across the city to attend school. Many schools offer transportation options. You can also find other families in your area to arrange carpools. Depending on the age of your child, public transportation is also an option.

For some elementary schools, it’s best to apply to pre-k and go from there. However, don’t despair. Often, by middle school, spots do open up. So, keep in touch with school officials and stay up-to-date on the application process each year.

Financial Aid
Don’t be turned away by the cost of tuition. Many schools offer financial aid and scholarships. Consider all your options.
Talk to your Child
After every event, talk to your child about what they liked and disliked. Keep some notes yourself. You might be surprised to find that your child’s priorities change as he matures.

Depending on your child’s age, ask him or her to create a few lists after every event: schools they like, top reasons they like the school, dislikes about the school. When looking at high schools, this is a good time to begin the conversation about the fact that not everyone will go to the same school. It’s important for your child to know that he or she needs to find the place that is right for him or her and that might be different from his friends.

Application Deadlines!
Once you’ve made your decision, get your application in as soon as possible. Keep a calendar and create alerts to remind you of the various deadlines for specific schools.

Chicago Parents Schools Guide

When purchasing a new home, there are many factors to consider. A great public school system can influence where you decide to live. In Chicago there are a wide variety of programs and school options for students attending Pre-K, Elementary School, and High School. Having raised three children in the city, Terri knows how important it is to understand the different programs offered. She’s here to help you navigate the education system. Here, we provide a brief summary of Chicago Public School (CPS) programs, as well as faith-based and independent schools. For application information and detailed information about specific schools, visit the following websites:

With the tools on these websites, you can search by zip code or name of school. The CPS site includes school profiles and additional data. The other sites include contact and general information about the various faith-based and independent schools in Chicago.

While the Chicago public school system offers many options for pre-k, elementary and high school students, it can be quite complicated. Here, we’ll break down the options to give you a head start!

The first and easiest option is your neighborhood school. This is determined by specific boundaries. Generally, any student living within those boundaries can attend that neighborhood school . Anyone who lives within the neighborhood boundaries can enroll at any time. You do not need to submit an application in advance, but it is recommended as early applications assist administrators in meeting the needs of their students.

No matter when you register, you will need documentation verifying your child’s age and proof of current address.

If you are not sure about the location of your neighborhood public school, visit the CPS locator site.

CPS also includes the following options. These schools may require applications, testing, or participation in a lottery system.

Let’s break down your options by stage of education, including Pre-k, elementary, high school, and more.

The CPS Birth to Three Programs (pre-k)

CPS funds early childhood education programs through both schools and community-based organizations across the city to provide high quality environments where certified early childhood educators support children’s health and development. Their Community Based Partnerships Program offers high quality childcare for children from birth to five years old.

School Based Programs include half day (2.5 to 3 hours long) and full day options. They provide a standardized curriculum: Creative Curriculum Literacy Approach is used in all classrooms, providing a research-based structure to support student growth and learning. The school-based programs are free of charge for children with special needs, children in temporary living situations, and income-eligible families. They may have a required fee based on the income of the parents or legal guardians.


Tuition-Based Preschool Programs
These programs are full-day and offered to children ages 3 and 4 years old in a limited number of elementary schools. Registration for these programs occurs at the school building.

Child Parent Centers
Focus on the needs of the entire family and emphasize the importance of continuity from preschool through 3rd Grade.

Selective Enrollment & Montessori
To learn more about how to apply for selective enrollment and Montessori programs, contact the Office of Access and Enrollment.

For a complete list of programs, visit the Chicago Early Learning website. You can also call the Chicago: Ready to Learn! Hotline at (312) 229-1690 to find out more information about programs that best meet your family’s needs.

Faith-based and Independent Early Childhood Programs

The Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools go through a rigorous evaluation process and are accredited by AdvancED. Their early childhood programs follow Illinois State Board of Education Early Learning Standards and Kindergarten Standards. The learning environment meets nationally recognized criteria for high quality such as those set forth by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Their schools offer a variety of schedules – full day, half day, five days a week, two or three days a week, morning groups and/or afternoon groups.

Elementary Schools in Chicago

There are three main types of schools to which you can apply – Choice Schools, Selective Enrollment and Charter Elementary Schools.

Choice Schools include: Open Enrollment Schools, Magnet Schools, and Magnet Cluster Schools.

Open Enrollment Schools Open enrollment schools accept students who live within their neighborhood attendance boundary. Available seats for students who live outside of the boundary are filled through the application and computerized lottery selection process. Generally, all students who live within this area may attend the school.

Magnet Schools These are schools that specialize in one particular area, such as math/science, Montessori, or Humanities. In most cases, magnet schools do not have neighborhood attendance boundaries. Seats are filled through the application and computerized lottery selection process.


Magnet Cluster Schools A neighborhood school that specializes in one particular area of the curriculum, such as technology, world language, or fine and performing arts. Magnet cluster schools accept students who live within their neighborhood attendance boundary. Available seats for students who live outside of the boundary are filled through the application and computerized lottery selection process.

Selective Enrollment Elementary Schools Selective enrollment schools include five types of schools/programs: Regional Gifted Centers, Regional Gifted Centers for English Learners, Classical Schools, the International Gifted Program, and Academic Centers (Grades 7-8). These schools are designed for academically advanced students and offer a rigorous curriculum with mainly honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Acceptance is based on application and entrance exam.

Elementary Charter Schools These are CPS elementary schools approved by the Chicago Board of Education. They are open to all Chicago children, but operate independently from the Board and each other. Acceptance is based on application and random lottery, if applicable.

Check out this CPS link for application questions and tips!

Faith-based and Independent Elementary Schools

The best way to begin your search is by visiting each school’s website. Pay particular attention to specific guidelines and enrollment deadlines for registering or applying for admissions. To locate a Catholic School near you, use the Archdiocese Find an Elementary School Search.

The Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS) is a membership organization of more than 235 independent schools from 13 states of the Midwest region. Member schools must follow specific standards common to all independent schools. Accreditation by ISACS is assurance to the public that these standards have been met and that the school’s success in meeting these standards is periodically reviewed. Visit the ISACS website for a list of schools in the Chicago area.

CPS High Schools

CPS offers a wide variety of high school options. These include designated neighborhood high schools where students living in that area are guaranteed a spot in the general education program. Students do not need to apply to attend their neighborhood programs.

Some schools offer special programs: World Language, Fine and Performing Arts, and Information Technology. These you need to apply to for entrance. CPS separates its school programs into two categories: Selective Enrollment and Choice Programs. There are 11 Selective Enrollment schools located throughout the city:

  • Brooks
  • Hancock
  • Jones
  • Lane
  • Lindblom
  • King
  • Northside
  • Payton
  • South Shore
  • Westinghouse
  • Whitney Young

All other programs are considered Choice programs.

Charter High Schools

Independently operated, these schools are authorized by CPS or the State Charter School Commission under Illinois Charter Schools Law. These charter schools are funded and monitored by the Chicago Public Schools district, but can exercise autonomy over many student-related policies. Charter schools are governed by school-selected Boards of Directors and operate under contractual agreements with the authorizing entity.


Chicago High Schools Selection Factors:

A combination of factors are considered for available seats in the 9th grade:

  • The order each program is ranked on their application
  • The number of seats available in each program
  • The program’s selection process (lottery or point system)
  • Possible priority preferences (e.g. siblings attending school, proximity to school, etc.)
  • Results from any required admissions screenings or supplementary requirements (e.g. testing, auditions, essays, etc.)

During the selection process, the application system will try to match the student with their top-ranked Choice Program and their top-ranked Selective Enrollment Program. If all the available seats at the student’s top-ranked program are filled by students that ranked higher based on the school’s admissions process or priority preferences, the system will try to match the student with their next highest choice. This process continues until the student receives an offer or the student is considered for all of the programs on their application and does not qualify for any.

The High School process is divided into 5 phases with corresponding dates each year. These include:

  • Learn (approximately May – October)
  • Search (approximately June – October)
  • Explore (approximately August – October)
  • Apply (approximately October – December and May – June)
  • Selection (approximately March – June)

Students can apply to attend any high school program at any school using GoCPS as long as they meet the minimum eligibility requirements to be considered for that program. To meet the minimum eligibility requirements for some programs, students must have scores from the NWEA MAP as administered by Chicago Public Schools. CPS students are administered the NWEA MAP at their schools and non-CPS families can register for the NWEA MAP by visiting GOCPS.

Once a family activates their GoCPS account, they will see a list of all the programs to which they are eligible to apply. The application process involves selecting and ranking the desired programs. Applicants can choose and rank up to 20 Choice Programs and 6 Selective Enrollment programs. Applicants will receive a single best offer to the highest-ranked Choice and/or Selective Enrollment program for which they are qualified and seats are available.

Faith-based and Independent High Schools

The Archdiocese of Chicago lists over 30 Catholic high schools. They boast a graduation rate of more than 98 percent, with 96 percent of graduates going on to college.

Catholic High Schools require an admissions test. The Catholic High School Entrance Exam is usually given in early December. Students must register for the test and take it where they wish to attend. Visit the school’s website for information on the pre-registration process. There is an entrance exam fee. Visit the Archdiocese’s Find a School locator to find a high school where you want to take the test.

The Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS) is a membership organization of more than 235 independent schools from 13 states of the Midwest region. Member schools must follow specific standards common to all independent schools. Accreditation by ISACS is assurance to the public that these standards have been met and that the school’s success in meeting these standards is periodically reviewed. Visit the ISACS website for a list of schools in the Chicago area.

Need assistance finding a school in your area? Check out these websites for more information:

In addition, here’s a link to the CPS elementary and high school guide.

Terri knows how important school challenges and decisions are for every parent. This guide will continue to be updated on a regular basis to keep it fresh and relevant for you, the Chicago home buyer.

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