In October, the open-house rush begins: Parents will be dragging their seventh and eighth graders to Chicago-area high schools, both public and private, to see what they’re like. And it’s a stress fest. If you live in the city, your kid will face an uphill battle trying to get into one of CPS’s 10 selective enrollment high schools, even if he or she is whip-smart: A whopping 16,440 students competed for 3,200 freshman seats for the 2013–14 school year. And if you live in a suburb with an excellent high school, you still have to figure out if it’s right for your child. For example, not every adolescent will thrive at a place as big as Evanston Township High School (3,120 students last year), Oak Park and River Forest High School (3,266), or Winnetka’s New Trier Township High School (4,208).
Should you pony up for private school instead, as do the parents of about one-fifth of high schoolers in the city? Answering that question can be maddeningly difficult, partly because data for comparison are hard to come by. Measures of student-teacher ratios, test scores, and percentages of students going on to college is made available by CPS, but private schools need not divulge it. And getting helpful information from Catholic institutions in the metro area can be like extricating a cell phone from the grip of a teenager. “Our schools are not alike,” insists Jo Marie Yonkus, assistant superintendent for high schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, “and a chart like this causes people to rate schools and compare them.”
She’s referring to this chart, for which Chicago contacted 101 accredited private schools in the six-county metro area. About a third shared the information requested. Of these, only four archdiocesan schools agreed to participate, at least in part because the archdiocese explicitly asked the principals of the six high schools it operates and of its 31 affiliated Catholic schools in the Chicago area (whose names are listed below the chart) not to cooperate; more on that later. The chart also includes recent stats from five CPS selective enrollment schools and five top performers in the suburbs to help you compare.
Consider this guide a starting point, then, as you begin to navigate your way through the options. You’ll find lots of positives (such as the expansion of several excellent private schools) and a few negatives (how much money a year?). But first, a word about the much-maligned Chicago neighborhood high school—you know, the non-select-enrollment kind. With more prosperous families staying in the city, aren’t many of them getting better?
Well, yes and no. While CPS has started robust academic enrichment plans at many schools—for example, at Lake View High School, which recently implemented a rigorous STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program—many parents feel that meaningful results are still years off. “Give Lake View High School 10 years, and then I’d consider sending my kid there,” says one mother, who has an eighth grader at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, a private Jewish elementary school in Lake View. (She didn’t want her name used for fear of harming her child’s chances of admission at another school.)
Still, this parent says that the high school situation isn’t bad enough to prompt a move to the suburbs: “The time my husband would have to spend commuting to work would make us all unhappy.” Plus, she prefers public education to private because of the diversity it offers. “But if my child doesn’t get into a selective enrollment school,” she says, “we’ll have to look to private options as a backup.”
Unfortunately, someone with an eighth grader today can’t wait for CPS’s efforts to fix the dramatic supply-and-demand problem at selective enrollment schools. Yes, Jones College Prep (rated No. 4 on Chicago’s 2012 list of the city’s best public high schools) increased its capacity by 125 seats last year and by roughly 225 this year, thanks to a brand-new $115 million building that includes art studios, a reading garden, and a fitness center. And over the next two years the popular school in the South Loop will phase in 450 more students. But it will be a year before Walter Payton College Preparatory, near Old Town (rated No. 2 on Chicago’s 2012 list), opens a $17 million annex that will increase its enrollment by as many as 400 students.
And the recently announced Barack Obama College Preparatory High School, CPS’s 11th selective enrollment high school, won’t open until 2016. Its inaugural freshman class of 300 lucky kids will include 100 students who live within close proximity to the proposed location at Division Street and Clybourn Avenue.
Meanwhile, a handful of interesting new private high schools have popped up recently (see three of them below), and many established ones are growing to meet demand. For example, next year the French immersion school Lycée Français de Chicago will move from its rented Lake View location to a new $35 million campus in Ravenswood, which is on track to be finished in time for the 2015–16 school year. As a result of that expansion, the school will increase its high school program from 120 students to about 170. Lycée’s president, Alain Weber, says that the school’s recent opening of admissions to ninth graders who aren’t already fluent in French has increased demand for spots. (You can bet your kid will be speaking the language by graduation, he says.)
At the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in Hyde Park (which serve students from pre-K through 12th grade), a $25 million gift in February from Ariel Investments president Mellody Hobson and her husband, director George Lucas, helped finance a new arts building. It’s scheduled to open next fall. This expansion, plus planned future additions, will help the schools increase their capacity by 200 students across all grades.
What’s more, in September 2015, the British School of Chicago in Lincoln Park—part of a group of 29 schools in 12 countries—will open a second campus on Roosevelt Road in the South Loop, which will take 560 high school students, up from about 100 at the current location. Among the coming amenities: science labs, a recording studio, and a soccer field. Another plus for some parents is that the school does not require children to take an entrance test. Instead, it conducts assessments in math, English, foreign language, and science before admission. “We usually find that students have done very limited studying of the sciences,” says principal Michael Horton. “[But] that doesn’t mean we won’t accept them. We want to know what they know and don’t know.”
Competition for admission to the established private schools can be its own kind of rat race. For the 2014–15 school year, the Latin School in the Gold Coast received 282 applications for 51 ninth-grade spots, and Lincoln Park’s Francis W. Parker School reported a meager 19 percent acceptance rate for its incoming class, including new students in the upper grades.
Two of the most competitive Catholic high schools in the area—St. Ignatius College Prep in Little Italy and Loyola Academy in suburban Wilmette—also draw considerably more applicants than they have spots for. According to Elizabeth Cummings Carney, the director of admissions at St. Ignatius, the school received 991 applicants for 380 spots in its 2014–15 freshman class, a 38 percent acceptance rate.
“We don’t have any high school that says it’s only going to take the top 5 percent [of students],” the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Yonkus says, elaborating on why she believes these schools’ low acceptance numbers are still not comparable to those of CPS. “Even Loyola and St. Ignatius don’t make decisions like Northside Prep does. They may not take as many students from the bottom, but they do have programs for kids with special learning needs.”
Overall, the number of students in the archdiocesan high schools has fallen every year over the last five, from 26,333 in 2009–10 to 23,228 in 2013–14, according to figures Yonkus provided. “Selective enrollment schools are free, and obviously we’re not. That’s what kills us,” she says. “Students increase their ACT scores by an average of four to six points during the four years they’re with us. If our schools were free, we’d be competing right alongside [CPS selective enrollment schools].”
Tuition, of course, may be your child’s biggest impediment to a private school education. Independent private school tuition has increased 3 to 5 percent a year in Chicago since 2010, to an average of $19,898 for the 2013–14 school year, according to Myra A. McGovern, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools. That’s less than the rate of increase in places such as Seattle and Dallas, where tuitions have gone up by as much as 5 to 9 percent annually in the same period. But it’s significantly more than the rise in the cost of living.
On the plus side, financial aid packages can be generous. For example, last year about half of the 80 high school students at Chicago Waldorf School, an independent pre-K through 12 school on the Far North Side, received aid, with the average package of $11,690 covering a good chunk of the $18,100 tuition. At the Latin School, 19 percent of the 459 upper-school students received financial aid last year; with tuition at $29,825 and the average package nearly $27,000, that was almost a full ride. “Our goal is to make Latin affordable for families for whom the cost is the only barrier to attendance,” says spokeswoman Evelyne Girardet. “Our financial aid is need-based rather than merit-based.” NAIS estimates that in 2012 a family of four in Chicago could earn as much as $178,805 and still qualify for at least some financial aid for one child to attend a private school charging $25,000 per year in tuition.
Tuition at Catholic high schools still tends to be lower than at most independent private ones. St. Ignatius will charge $16,300 for the 2014–15 school year; Loyola, $14,775. Last fall, the archdiocese launched a program that grants full scholarships to high school students with at least one parent who did not graduate from college.
Something to consider: Selective enrollment high schools aren’t always the best fit, even for the high-achieving kids who get in. Irving Park resident Nathan Neff pulled his son Anderson out of ninth grade at Jones College Prep in 2012 after less than a month. “I was hopeful that Jones would provide a competitive education without me having to pay the $20,000,” says Neff, referring to what he had spent to send Anderson to the British School.
But almost immediately, he says, he and his wife realized that moving their son to Jones had been the wrong decision—mainly because Anderson reported not feeling challenged by the schoolwork. “Anderson said he was going over things he had learned three years earlier [at British],” says Neff. Another factor: Anderson’s short stint at Jones included the seven days of the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike. “My wife and I are both working parents, and we need to count on the fact that our three kids will be in school,” says Neff.
The Neffs found out that another ninth grader who had also previously attended the British School was having a similar experience at Jones; both kids ended up back at British. “We’re not high-pressure parents, but we are concerned about college admissions. We looked at where our son was and said, ‘If he can go 80 miles per hour, what good is an education that has him only going 60?’ ” Given Anderson’s experience, Neff says he and his wife probably won’t roll the dice on publics for their two younger children, currently in private schools. “There’s no inherent dislike of CPS,” he says. “It’s all about what works best for each individual child.”