In March, parents all over the city will receive thin white envelopes from the Chicago Public Schools informing them whether their efforts the preceding fall did any good toward securing a spot for their would-be kindergartner. To help next year’s crop of prospective parents navigate the often confusing process of applying to the Chicago public schools, here’s a primer, gleaned partially from my own experience two years ago. The most important thing to remember? The deadline for applications usually falls on the Friday before Christmas; for the 2009-10 school year, that would be December 19th.

1. CONQUER THE JARGON. It’s really not as confusing as it seems. First, of course, there’s your neighborhood school, to which you need not submit an application. 

Except for a handful of programs, a magnet school is a public elementary school that picks all of its students through a randomized computer lottery; you do not need to live anywhere near the school to apply. Hawthorne and Stone Scholastic academies, LaSalle Language Academy, Disney, and Franklin Fine Arts Center are a few popular magnet schools; Drummond, a magnet elementary school in Bucktown, offers Montessori instruction for students in kindergarten through third grade. A magnet cluster school is a neighborhood school that may fill its open slots with kids from outside the school’s geographical boundary, and also through the CPS computer lottery. Popular magnet cluster schools include Blaine, Burley, and Nettelhorst. You may apply to as many of these two kinds of schools as you wish, using a standard application that may be photocopied. In October, CPS will publish its new application booklet—called Options for Knowledge—which contains the standard application and lists of the magnet and magnet cluster schools; the booklet will also be available for download from

Then there are two kinds of elementary schools for which you must have your child tested: regional gifted centers and the so-called classical schools, which focus on accelerated reading, among other things. Regional gifted centers include Edison and Lenart; Bell, a neighborhood school in North Center, houses a regional gifted center that starts in first grade. Decatur, McDade, Poe, and Skinner are the four classical schools. For these, you must use a different, yellow application, which you will find in the center of the Options for Knowledge booklet; the form may not be photocopied, and you may apply starting in October through the December deadline. Once the Office of Academic Enhancement receives your mailed application, it will contact you to schedule an appointment to test your child. These test-in schools do not give any preference to siblings of current students.

2. ATTEND AT LEAST ONE OPEN HOUSE EARLY IN THE PROCESS. Chicago public schools hold open houses for prospective parents in the fall and winter, and some even offer them year-round. It’s your chance to look around, see the students in class, and hear about the school’s approach to instruction. Although it may seem pointless to tour a school before the acceptance letters go out in March, I would recommend visiting at least one school that interests you because of its scores or reputation. Every school is different and, many parents say, the best ones reflect the creativity and dynamism of their principals. Additionally, coming face to face with a public school—the facility, the often packed-to-the-rafters class size, the distance from home—can be a reality check for some parents.

When you attend an open house, getting a glimpse of the students in their classrooms during school hours is important, says Erin Roche, the principal of Ravenswood elementary school. Currently touring other schools as the parent of a prospective kindergartner, Roche says he likes to see neat and organized classrooms, artwork on the walls that is creative and not formulaic, and engaged instructors who don’t interrupt their teaching to entertain visitors such as parents touring a school. “If there’s a chance to talk with a student, ask them, What are you doing and why do you think it’s important?” Roche adds. “If they can’t tell you why they’re doing something, it’s probably not a great quality classroom.”

3. KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A QUALITY SCHOOL. In other words, don’t just go on positive vibes or word of mouth from friends. Scores on the ISAT, the statewide standardized test for public-school students grades 3 through 8, can be more predictive of how children will perform in high school than parents may realize, according to new findings from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, a University of Chicago-affiliated think tank that studies CPS outcomes using detailed performance data. Research done by the consortium’s John Easton found that students who exceeded state standards on the math ISAT in eighth grade had a 75 percent likelihood of scoring a 20 or higher on the ACT exam taken in the junior year of high school (the ACT is a standardized test required for application to most four-year colleges). For a benchmark, consider that the average incoming freshman to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign scored a 28 on the ACT. So when looking at a school’s scores parents should focus on the percentage of students exceeding standards, not the bigger percentage that is “meeting and exceeding” standards. Based on this analysis, just meeting standards doesn’t get a student even close to achieving a 20 on the ACT, which these days is the bare minimum score for an average state college.

4. LOBBY THE PRINCIPAL. Principals of magnet and magnet cluster schools may award a handful of slots—the number is 5 percent of the total class—to anyone they choose. This widely known but little-understood fact—sometimes called “principal discretion”—is the source of most of the parental handwringing over the application process. The grim reality is that there are precious few openings at the most popular magnet programs; for example, the LaSalle Language Academy, a coveted destination in Lincoln Park, receives between 800 and 900 applications for roughly 60 kindergarten spots. The lottery scenario is further complicated by preferential lotteries for siblings and children who live within a mile and a half of the school, as well as the CPS requirement that enrollment in every magnet school achieve racial balance.

To many parents, the idea of pleading one’s case to an already besieged principal seems futile, if not slightly desperate and overweening. However, it can help. “I would tell parents if [they had] a special situation write me a letter, because otherwise I [wouldn’t] know,” says Amy Weiss Narea, LaSalle’s recently retired principal. During her tenure, she says, when slots opened up—a mid-September dropout, for example—applications with letters could help her select a new student. Rather than waste words telling a principal how smart and charming your child is, use the letter to say who you are and why you like the school for your kid. Although principals strenuously deny that bartering for admissions happens at their schools, they admit that aggressive parents can win themselves a second look should openings arise. You might also mention a willingness to transfer in as late as necessary.

Of course, every principal has a different attitude toward parental solicitation—case in point, LaSalle’s new principal, Elisabeth Heurtefeu, describes the process as “pure luck” and says she probably will not read every letter the school receives this year.

5. GO ON—APPLY TO THE PRIVATES, JUST FOR THE HECK OF IT. Many schools offer financial aid, and the income threshold may be lower than you think. Anne Frame, the director of admissions and financial aid for the Latin School, says that her department’s biggest challenge is getting out the word to middle-income families. “They self-select out, thinking that they make too much money and they’ve never asked for help before,” she says, adding that private schools nationwide face the same dilemma, dubbed the “barbell effect.” Latin has $2.2 million of need-based aid available to spread across all grades from kindergarten through 12; Frame says 16 percent of Latin students receive financial aid toward an annual tuition that starts at $17,425 for junior kindergarten. Be aware that so-called “junior kindergarten” (for children who turn four by September 1st) is the important entry year for some schools, including Latin and Francis W. Parker School; for the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the big year to apply is into the nursery program for three-year-olds. The application deadlines typically fall in December and January.


Parental Guidance

Started in 1980, the Northside Parents Network (now called NPN) publishes its own school directory and organizes useful elementary-school fairs—one in May and three in November by region (North, South, and Northwest sides). 312-409-2233,


Info, Please?

The Chicago Public Schools’ main Web site, at, contains so many tabs that parents new to the process may flee in confusion. Instead, go to the magnet and gifted programs’ Web site at, where you can download the Options for Knowledge applications booklet.


Illustrations: John Kenzie