Keller Regional Gifted Center
At Keller Regional Gifted Center

The month of September brings many pleasures: crisp sunny days, the start of college football season, hearty autumn ales in your neighborhood tavern, and the chance to reclaim your routine by sending your little darlings back to school. But it can also bring one major anxiety: sending your little darlings back to school. If your children attend public school in Chicago, anyway.

That’s due in large part to the long summer of tension between the city and the Chicago Teachers Union. There have been passionate arguments about the budget and threats by union president Karen Lewis to strike over Mayor Emanuel’s extension of the school day, which at presstime appeared to be a sure thing for fall. (CPS and the union tentatively agreed to a seven-hour day for elementary schools, up from a paltry five hours and 45 minutes, and seven and a half hours for high schools, an extension of 14 minutes.)

Even if a strike really has been averted, you’ve still got the questions that every parent faces. Where can you send your kids to maximize their chances of getting a top-notch education—a school that will allow them to thrive, not to mention to get into a terrific college? And given all the financial pressures on school districts everywhere lately, how nervous should you be about public education in general?

Relax. The good news is that it is still possible to get an excellent public school education for children, whether they live in the city or the suburbs. The key is knowing how the schools stack up—and, if you live in the city, the strategies for getting into the best ones.

Granted, it’s too late to do anything about your school choice for 2012-13. But this is the perfect time for parents of next year’s preschoolers, kindergartners, and high-school freshmen—and parents who are contemplating a move to the suburbs or within the city—to start exploring options and implementing tactics that can pay off big in the fall of 2013. To help you, Chicago interviewed local education experts and pored through reams of data. The result: quality rankings for the top public high schools and elementary schools in the city, the rest of Cook County, and the surrounding counties (DuPage, Lake, Kane, McHenry, and Will).

If you are thinking about moving to the suburbs, use our charts to benchmark the highest-performing schools by county. (Also read about how we ranked the schools.) These lists will give you valuable information for picking a suburb with a strong school district. (In July, the real-estate website Zillow reported that metro-area home prices may have finally bottomed out—making now an opportune moment for families ready to buy.)

If you’re a city parent, however, the equation is much more complicated. How you attack the school application process can make all the difference. And that’s our focus here.

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Despite all the talk about the public education system being broken, Katie Ellis, CPS’s executive director of access and enrollment, says that the number of student applications for the system’s magnet, selective enrollment, and other opt-in schools has been rising for the past several years. Although total CPS enrollment is down 4 percent since 2005, the number of applications for the selective-enrollment schools has gone up by 26 percent since the 2009-10 school year.

Ellis cites three reasons for the increase. CPS has opened new schools, including Skinner North, a standout classical elementary school on the Near North Side. There are new programs—such as the recent expansion of the International Baccalaureate curriculum to additional schools in the system—that make public education appealing to more parents. And there’s a growing awareness among city residents of how to navigate the system.

As seasoned Chicago parents know, if you are dissatisfied with the quality of your assigned neighborhood school, you can apply to a dizzying array of better-performing ones: At the elementary level, there are charter schools, classical schools, contract schools, magnet schools, regional gifted centers, and “small” schools. These 122 out-of-neighborhood options account for 23 percent of all elementary schools. Last year, 13,849 students—about 5 percent of the CPS grade-school population—applied to at least one elementary school outside their neighborhood boundaries; on average, each student applied to six.

CPS runs nine selective enrollment high schools, in addition to career and military academies and a bevy of honors programs at certain neighborhood schools. As you might expect, the competition is insane, bordering on nightmarish, for the best selective enrollment high schools, and it’s made even worse now that a few of them recently popped up on lists of the best public high schools in the country from Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report.

This year, Walter Payton College Prep in Old Town (No. 41 on the U.S. News list) accepted only 1.7 percent of the 11,671 students who applied. Both Whitney Young on the Near West Side and Northside College Prep in North Park accepted less than 3 percent. (Those rates are even lower than Harvard’s, the most selective of the Ivy League schools at 5.9 percent for 2012-13, according to CNNMoney.)

In years past, parents of would-be kindergartners went from school to school, glad-handing principals and angling for admission for their children. That’s because elementary school principals had the power to make discretionary picks for their student bodies from kids who didn’t score well enough on the entry test or get a spot through the random computer lottery.

Two years ago, CPS largely nixed the discretionary-picks practice. “The point is not to try to game your way in,” says Ellis. “Previously, parents often felt like there might have been a back door. We’ve tried to close those loopholes so that everything comes down to the lottery process.” CPS also tied admission to census data, mapping the city into four socioeconomic tiers.

For magnet elementaries, entrance works like this: Siblings of current students are admitted first. Forty percent of the remaining seats go to randomly selected applicants who live within a mile and a half of the school; the other 60 percent are divvied up through a citywide lottery that awards spots equally among four tiers. The selective enrollment elementary schools (also known as the gifted and classical schools) and selective enrollment high schools fill 30 percent of their classes with the top scorers on their admission tests; the rest of the seats are divided among the highest scoring students from each socioeconomic tier.

Few people would argue with the idea of trying to make the admissions system as fair as possible. But CPS acknowledges that the city’s best-regarded grade and high schools attract more applicants from the affluent neighborhoods. That means if you live in one of these neighborhoods (tiers three and four), your kid has a slimmer chance of getting into an opt-in school now than under the old system.

No wonder the postings on CPS Obsessed, a popular website for parents applying to Chicago public schools, are filled with tales of triple-digit waitlists and wrenching rejections. “The risk of getting stuck is what terrifies people,” says Rebecca Labowitz, a Bowmanville mother who started the site in 2008. “If you don’t live near a good neighborhood school, you have to do all this research.”

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Given these realities, how do you give your offspring an edge? Theoretically, you could move to a poorer area of the city—but there’s no guarantee your new address won’t be reassigned to a higher socioeconomic tier in 2013. (CPS adjusts the map at will and without prior notice.) Here are other ideas you might consider:

  • Throw out the tier map and move to an area that boasts an excellent neighborhood school. But where? Until recently, matching available real estate to public school boundaries was a laborious time suck—a home-by-home research project using the CPS school locator. Real-estate agents can do a search for homes within a school’s zone, but the mapping program used by the multiple listing service can’t fully accommodate the zigzagging boundaries, says Tom Brown, a real-estate broker.

    So Brown, a dad who lives in Ravenswood, decided to create an online tool to solve the problem. He input the boundaries of the approximately 400 Chicago public elementaries and built a search engine that cross-references them with homes currently for sale. His free service, called School Sparrow, launched in May and lets you search for city properties and rentals by school, home size, and price.

  • Nail the application. The deadline—usually around the second week in December—will creep up faster than you realize and, even though CPS has streamlined its process, there are still some twists and turns. For Chicago students starting kindergarten and high school in 2013-14, go to to apply (skip the fussy paper applications). This month, you may request a PIN for the online process, which begins October 1. There are two elementary school applications—one for the magnets and another for the nine regional gifted centers (such as Keller, Lenart, and Edison) and the five classical schools (Decatur, McDade, Poe, Skinner North, and Skinner West). There is a separate application for the selective enrollment high schools.

    “It really wasn’t that hard,” says Aimee Clark, a Rogers Park resident who last year applied to six out-of-boundary neighborhood and magnet elementary schools for her son, Miles. Clark and her husband asked friends for recommendations and did some online research online. “We wanted a school that was decent, fairly close to our house, and maintained a good diversity,” she says. Of the six schools, Miles was accepted at two and waitlisted at four. The Clarks chose Peirce in nearby Andersonville.

  • Prep for the high-school test. Students today must score near a perfect 300 on the selective enrollment entrance exam if they hope to make the cut at certain high schools. The admission score—the combination of your seventh grader’s grades and scores on standardized tests, plus points for the exam—for this year’s freshman class at Whitney Young averaged 885 out of 900 for students from tier 4 neighborhoods; at Walter Payton College Prep, the number was an astonishing 897.

    Naturally, test prep services have rushed in. Next month, SelectivePrep, one of the pioneer businesses of this kind in Chicago, begins this year’s battalion of sessions across the city—$395 for eight two-hour classes, once a week after school or on the weekends. Is it worth it? While SelectivePrep has no statistics proving that its course raises test scores, many experts say practice and review will put your child in a test-taking mindset and reduce anxiety on exam day.

  • Take advantage of the one remaining gray area. If your eighth grader doesn’t get into the high school of his or her choice, there is one last appeal: Principals at the city’s selective enrollment high schools can still handpick up to 5 percent of the incoming freshman class. Bolster your child’s chances of being chosen by helping him or her put together a candidacy packet that includes a new application, letters of recommendation, and an essay. Stress notable achievements—excellence in debate, athletic awards, leadership in community service—and don’t shy away from explaining poor performance on the entrance exams due to extenuating circumstances, such as a personal tragedy. Ask the school for its procedure and deadlines. If all else fails, reapply for your child’s sophomore year. Dropouts do happen.


Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp