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With additional reporting by Mark Byrne, Beth Marino, and Brooke Nevils
How Does Your School Stack Up?Click to view the data (pdf)
Although vastly outnumbered by the area’s public high schools, Chicago’s private high schools figure prominently in the history and development of the city and suburbs. West Chicago’s Wheaton Academy, first established (by abolitionists) as the Illinois Institute, has been around since 1853. Chicago’s first public high school wouldn’t open until 1856, at Halsted and Monroe streets. St. Patrick, the city’s oldest Catholic high school, came along a year later, setting up shop at Adams and Desplaines streets. And some of the country’s most forward-looking educators—such as Francis W. Parker and John Dewey—found in Chicago the ideal laboratory in which to test and implement their innovative ideas.
As demonstrated by the accompanying chart—where readers will find listed Wheaton Academy, St. Pat’s, Francis Parker, and Dewey’s University of Chicago Lab Schools—that local tradition of private high schools still thrives today. The 56 schools on our chart serve a wide range of constituencies, both religious—Christian, Jewish, and Islamic—and secular.
Even those schools with no religious affiliation seem to respond to a higher civic calling. Spend a little time talking with Dan Frank, the principal—and a graduate—of Francis Parker, and the phrase “moral commitment” will likely pop up. “That is part of the language of the culture at our school,” he explains. “It’s at the core of Parker’s mission, from kindergarten through senior year.”
The religiously affiliated schools also subscribe to this larger public mission. “Your faith has to be put into practice,” says Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, the president—and a grad—of Marian Catholic High School. “It has to feed every part of your life. Part of our mission is to create concerned, productive citizens.”
That emphasis on social awareness figures as an important lure to parents and students considering a private high school. But other options sometimes play a part as well—including the opportunity to attend a single-gender school. “We feel that during the school day, the boys can concentrate more on academics [without girls around],” says Joseph Schmidt, the principal at the all-male St. Pat’s (situated, since 1953, on Chicago’s Northwest Side, at Belmont and Austin avenues). “On the other hand, we have lots of ladies who participate in after-school activities. There is plenty of social interaction.” The same holds true at Chicago’s De La Salle Institute, which, when it comes to academics, has two distinct single-gender campuses (separated by about two miles) that come together for extracurricular activities.
But in the early 21st century, single-gender schools are a distinct minority, constituting only 25 percent of the schools on our chart. “We think it better reflects the real world to use the talents of both sexes,” says McCaughey, whose Marian Catholic has been coed since its founding in 1958. “But there is still a place for single-sex schools. It’s wonderful for parents to have a choice.”
Indeed, when it comes to private schools, “choice” is the operative word. “I would love to say that every parent and student chooses our school because we have a religious element,” says McCaughey. “But I know that’s not true.” Instead, many people select a private school—even a faith-based private school—because they are looking for better educational opportunities than might be available at the local public high school. “If you can offer a strong curriculum, you can overcome most socioeconomic and racial differences,” says McCaughey. (The syllabus at all accredited private high schools is tied to standards established by the state.)
Parents are also looking for a safe, disciplined environment—the dress codes and other strict policies that rarely pass muster in a public school. In September 2004, for instance, St. Pat’s began a mandatory drug-testing policy. “Being a private school, we were able to implement that,” says Schmidt. “It allows us to catch in time those marginal kids who really need help. It was such a slam-dunk.” And, he adds, most of the kids seem to have accepted the policy. “The students want to be here. They get thrown out of St. Pat’s, their options aren’t that great.”
From an educator’s point of view, the greatest strength of a private school may be that it is unconstrained by a large public bureaucracy. That gives the schools the ability to respond quickly to what Frank calls the “teachable moment"—those occasions that allow teachers to provide instruction that goes beyond a textbook.
At Parker, that can mean snaring a prestigious Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam Grant (which rewards inventiveness among high-school students) or collaborating with Chicago’s Working Bikes Cooperative to collect and repair bicycles destined for Third World countries. “We need to be nimble, to be spontaneous and structured all at the same time,” says Frank.
Private schools, by their nature, are different from one another, and as our chart demonstrates, those differences extend to acceptance rates and tuition. Parker, which has a high retention rate from eighth grade to high school, accepts only 20 percent of the students who apply to the high school—and once accepted, they must pay nearly $20,000 in annual tuition. By contrast, St. Pat’s accepts 99 percent of applicants, and charges only $7,200 in tuition. “Our mission is to provide an education preferential to the poor,” says Schmidt. “We accept all kinds of kids with different educational backgrounds"—something to keep in mind, he says, when comparing test scores from one private high school to those of another.
Whatever their financial situation, the schools make do. After more than 150 years, they continue to provide viable options on the local secondary-education scene. “We do a good job with a whole little,” says McCaughey. “I think that’s true of most private high schools.”
Photograph: Kevin Banna