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The A+ Team: How We Ranked Them

poster made by chicago elementary school children

NOTE: This story appeared in our October 2006 issue. For the latest data, see our October 2010 story.

The charts on these pages are not all the same. The larger set of charts rank public elementary, middle, and junior high schools in Chicago and its six surrounding counties; out of the more than 1,740 schools in the Chicago area, we list only the 115 that came out on top in the data-crunching process described below. The number of schools we list for each area is roughly proportional to the total number of schools there; thus, for heavily populated Chicago and Cook County we list the top 30, but for the far less populous McHenry County, only five.

On the last chart, we show relevant data for a select group of private and parochial schools, but we do not rank or score them. (Instead, they are listed alphabetically.) Although universal measuring sticks for the public schools exist in the form of standardized data released by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) each fall, there are no such common gauges available for private schools. All information on private schools comes directly from the schools themselves.

The ISBE, based in Springfield, gathers data on every public school in the state, measuring hundreds of attributes—from the essential, such as the number of children at the school performing at or above state standards on math tests, to the esoteric, such as the percentage of the school district’s budget devoted to fire prevention and safety. This information is reported by the individual schools or school districts, and later released to local communities in the form of an annual report card. Chicago’s data is from the 2005 report card, the latest available, which came out last fall and derives from the 2004-05 school year. (New figures,
reflecting the 2005-06 school year, were scheduled to be released to schools in October.)

The first step in picking the best public schools was easy: we simply opened the floodgates and let a river of data from the ISBE rush through. Chicago then winnowed the data down to a small set of attributes most critical to the quality of education a school provides. Finally, we assigned point values for each of those attributes and tallied up the totals to arrive at our rankings. Some of the data we used is broken out on our charts by individual school, while in other cases a district-wide figure is given.

On the city chart, none of the innovative new charter schools rank in our top 30. One reason is that our scoring system awarded high marks to schools with more experienced teachers and better pay. Charter schools tend to be staffed by younger teachers who are paid less than the average teacher in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). That does not mean charter school teachers are inferior, just that their lack of experience limited their scores.

For our chart of private schools, we interviewed education experts and compiled a list of 25 based on their recommendations. Although these schools are topnotch, this is not a definitive list of the 25 best. Because no comprehensive data about private schools exist, we then solicited information from each school on our list, and included it in our chart. Many private schools, including the Chicago Catholic schools, would not release data related to standardized test scores.

Grades in School: In our region, there is enormous variety in how school districts scatter their elementary and junior high students. In some districts you will find a traditional neighborhood school where students stay in one building from kindergarten through eighth grade. In others, students from all over the town or school district go to one building for the first few grades, then shift to another for later grades. On top of that, there’s no uniform point at which kids step up from primary school to the next level. Some start middle school at sixth grade; others start junior high at seventh; and still others stay in a primary school until they begin high school at ninth. Note that this entry on the chart is only descriptive; it did not figure into the rankings.

Total School Enrollment: The figures listed reflect the number of students enrolled in the school as of September 30, 2004. Because of the difference in grade allotments described above, it’s hard to compare school sizes at the elementary level. The largest elementary school in the region is Woodland (not shown on our chart), in School District 50 in Gages Lake, with 2,325 students in first through third grades. That district, which serves all or part of 11 towns in a fast-growing swath of northern Lake County, has an unusual approach to handling a large student population. Each of its three school buildings—for grades one through three, four and five, and six through eight—houses two “mirror image” schools, an east and a west, each with its own principal, playground, and other facilities. That goes a long way toward breaking down the mammoth numbers, but it still means first graders are on a campus of about 1,100 kids, more than twice the median of about 500 for a Chicago-area primary school. School enrollment is descriptive; it did not count in a school’s score.

children at a chicago elementary school
Potion is the motion at Brook Forest.

Average Teacher Experience: This is a statistic that cuts both ways. Experienced teachers are seasoned in the ways of reaching children, but they also command higher salaries than young teachers do. In this chart and in its past charts of local high schools, Chicago leans toward more experience as a good thing, while acknowledging that it’s expensive. Teacher experience is given as an average over an entire school district. That’s why on the Chicago chart the same figure is listed for each school.

With an average tenure of 18.3 years, the teachers at La Grange District 105 (South) in Cook County have the most experience among all the school districts represented on our charts. Those teachers are not, however, the highest paid—though they rank near the top in salary. This suggests veteran teachers find nonfinancial reasons to stick around at this district even though they might have shifted to better-paying schools elsewhere. The small, intimate nature of District 105’s schools—none of its five campuses has more than 245 students—might be one reason.

Pupil-Teacher Ratio: Schools report average class sizes for various grades; classes generally get bigger as kids get to higher grades. We report each school’s overall pupil-teacher ratio because of the lack of uniformity in how schools designate grade levels, as noted above (under “Grades in School”). Small class sizes are important to every parent; the hope is that the fewer students a teacher oversees, the more individualized attention each child will get. At Butler School District 53 in Oak Brook and Sunset Ridge School District 29 in Northfield, both of which sport some of the smallest class sizes on our charts, the closeness of teachers and students is a point of local pride. In Oak Brook, “small classes have been a hallmark of the
district for years,” says Kim Rosas, a parent of two students in elementary school there. When a new administration began talking about increasing class sizes a few years ago, she says, “parents fought to maintain the numbers as they were,” and they prevailed.

Average Teacher Salary: Schoolteachers ought to be paid well, and at most of the region’s top-ranked schools, they are. Elementary school teachers are paid best in a broad swath of DuPage County that takes in four school districts (181, 203, 62, and 201) stretching from Clarendon Hills to Naperville. All report average salaries of $68,000 or more.

The median salary for teachers in all Chicago-area primary schools is about $58,000. On our charts, several districts in outlying counties (Kane, Will, and McHenry) pay below that level, but the cost of living there is lower than in many locations closer to the urban center. In close-in suburbs, only Glencoe and Bannockburn pay their teachers below the median but still manage to land their schools in our rankings of the best.

Instructional Expenditure per Pupil: This is a measure of how much of the school district’s money goes to teaching, rather than to construction, transportation, debt service, or other operations. The idea is not that money spent equates directly to student achievement; instead, this figure shows a community’s commitment, via taxation, to high educational standards, as well as the efficiency with which a school allocates its resources. There’s no denying that in a place like Northbrook School District 27, which spends $9,595 per pupil, the most of any public elementary school district in the region, the abundant resources available to students facilitate learning.

How closely does spending correlate with achievement? Well, two schools in Kildeer Countryside School District 96 in Lake County spend $5,518, the least of all the schools that made it to the top ranks, but more of their students meet or exceed state testing standards than Northbrook District 27 students do.

Working a notebook at Braeside
Working a notebook at Braeside

Meets or Exceeds State Standards: Public school students submit to a battery of tests to determine their fitness in various subjects according to state standards. Each school’s report card to parents details its students’ scores on the numerous tests. The state also scores each school on overall performance, or the percentage of its students’ scores on all state tests that meet or exceed the Illinois Learning Standards. This can be read, then, as an all-around measure of students’ abilities.

Suburban elementary schools with the highest “meets/exceeds” figures are Sprague, in Lincolnshire (97.6), Walker, in Clarendon Hills (97.2), and Whittier, in Wheaton (97.1).

At the top of the city schools sits Lenart Elementary Regional Gifted Center, where 100 percent of the students’ scores meet or exceed standards. No surprise; it’s a specialty campus that gets to cherry-pick the brightest elementary students in the city, along with Decatur, Edison, and Keller, all of which score in the extreme upper 90s. Their scores are not far above the top-scoring CPS school that is not a gifted specialty school: Edgebrook, a neighborhood school on the far Northwest Side, had a 97 percent meets/exceeds score in the 2005 report cards. With that score, Edgebrook also bested every other nonspecialty school in the city. Early results provided to the schools in July showed Edgebrook improving somewhat the following year; principal Jan Kepka says the 2006 report card, to be issued in October, will show 97.7 percent of Edgebrook students meeting or exceeding state standards.

Grades in School: Although some schools refer to classes for three- and four-year-olds as junior kindergarten, we have used the term “prekinder-garten” (pre-K) on the chart. Note that Baker Demonstration School also offers classes for toddlers.

Total School Enrollment: The figures represent enrollment for the current school year. Although several schools on the list include 9th through 12th grades, the enrollment figure on the chart represents only the student body through eighth grade.

Average Class Size: In most cases, the figures shown are for individual grade levels, but three schools—the Ancona School, Council Oak Montessori School, and P.L.A.I.D. Academy—combine multiple grades in single classrooms. Ancona has multiage classrooms in the lower grades; thus the figure on the chart for grade one actually includes first and second grades. For Council Oak, the class size cited for grade one includes three- to six-year-olds, while the figure for grade six includes 9- to 12-year-olds. For P.L.A.I.D., the figure cited for grade one includes kindergartners and first and second graders; the class size given for grade six includes not just sixth grade but also seventh and eighth. Also, although Queen of the Rosary School’s average class size for grade six is 30, its science and math classes are half that size.

Chicago Magazine's Elementary School Rankings List

The A+ Team

The A+ Team: How We Ranked Them

The A+ Team: Standouts
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