With additional reporting by Mark Byrne, Beth Marino, and Brooke Nevils
How Does Your School Stack Up?
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
Methods and Sources
In its October 2007 issue, Chicago presented a wide array of statistical data about 233 public high schools. Now we take a look at the area's private high schools.
This chart provides data for 56 private high schools—or the high-school segment of schools that include kindergarten through grade 12—in the six-county metro area. Chicago requested information about the 2006-2007 academic year from 83 private schools; all the schools that responded have been included on the chart. The anomalies in the data submitted by particular schools are explained in the annotations below.
The three columns following the name of the school indicate the town where the school is situated, the school's religious affiliation, if any, and the number of students enrolled in grades 9 through 12 at the school. If enrollment is limited to students of one sex, that is indicated with an (F) for female or an (M) for male. Chicago's De La Salle Institute has separate campuses for boys and girls, but for purposes of this survey, the two schools have combined their data. With a high-school enrollment of 67 students, Chicago Waldorf School and Lycée Français de Chicago are the smallest schools on the list; Loyola Academy in Wilmette, with 2,000 students, is the largest.
Like most colleges and universities, many private schools accept only a fraction of the students who apply. A low rate of acceptance can be a mark of exclusivity. By that measure, Francis W. Parker School is the most exclusive school on the list, rejecting four out of every five applicants to the high school. One Catholic school, St. Joseph High School in Westchester, accepts 100 percent of the students who apply. Twenty-one schools accept 95 percent or more of the students who apply. Lycée Français accepts 98 percent of applicants, but all applicants must speak fluent French. "Otherwise," says Delphine Lenoir, the school's director of admissions and communications, "we are not able to take new students at the high-school level." Other schools have similar built-in restrictions. "Wheaton Academy seeks students from evangelical Christian families," says Dave Pacheco, the school's communications coordinator—which means that many potential students won't even bother to apply. At Parker, which educates kids from junior kindergarten through 12th grade, most graduates of the eighth grade continue on to the high school. "We take in only 10 to 20 new high-school students each year," says Dan Frank, the principal at Parker—and the competition for those spots can be fierce.
This figure is the cost for each full-time student, not including boarding costs at schools where students can live, such as Lake Forest Academy—which, with its $26,500 tuition, is Chicago's most expensive private high school (boarding students pay another $9,800 per year). With a tuition of only $2,700, the 11-year-old Cristo Rey Jesuit High School on Chicago's Near Southwest Side is the least expensive high school on the chart. At Lycée Français, the tuition increases to $13,500 after the freshman year. Some schools do offer small discounts on tuition for families sending more than one child to the school. Schools may also charge additional fees for such things as books, computers, transportation, and athletics.
PERCENTAGE OF STUDENTS RECEIVING FINANCIAL AID/AVERAGE FINANCIAL AID PACKAGE
Private schools at all levels try to lighten the load for qualified but needy students by providing scholarship money. The school with the greatest percentage of its students receiving some form of financial aid is De La Salle Institute, which provides economic assistance to 85 percent of its students (the average financial aid package there is $1,200). Mount Assisi Academy in Lemont assisted the smallest percentage of students: 4.6 percent, with an average financial aid package of $1,600. Pricey Lake Forest Academy, which provides financial aid to 31 percent of its students, had the largest average aid package: $23,591, or 89 percent of the cost of tuition. In Chicago's Mount Greenwood neighborhood, Brother Rice High School provided the smallest aid package: $750. Timothy Christian High School in Elmhurst had no information available on financial aid; Guerin College Preparatory High School in River Grove, which assists 40 percent of its students, did not furnish information about the average amount of financial aid provided.
AVERAGE CLASS SIZE
The average class size varies widely among the 56 schools, from 9.7 students per class at Evanston's Roycemore School to 29 students at Brother Rice High School.
PERCENTAGE OF COLLEGE-BOUND GRADUATES
All 56 high schools that responded to our survey send 90 percent or more of their students on to college, and nearly half of them—27 schools—send 100 percent.
NUMBER OF FULL-TIME TEACHERS
In schools with both primary and secondary grades, this figure is the number of teachers attached to the high-school grades only. Loyola Academy in Wilmette has 165 full-time teachers, the largest number on the chart; Roycemore and Chicagoland Jewish High School in Deerfield have the fewest full-time teachers, with 11 each.
PERCENTAGE OF TEACHERS WITH MASTER'S DEGREES/NUMBER OF TEACHERS WITH DOCTORATES
These figures indicate the academic strength of a high school's faculty; they also suggest a teacher's eagerness to ascend a salary ladder that tends to reward people who have earned advanced degrees. Note that the number of teachers with a master's degree is given as a percentage of the total faculty; the adjacent column shows the actual number of teachers with a doctorate. Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette has the largest proportion of teachers with a master's degree: 89 percent. The smallest proportion is at Leo Catholic High School, where 11 percent of the teachers have a master's degree. At Chicago Waldorf School, 82 percent of the teachers have had Waldorf training, which, in the Waldorf system, is considered the equivalent of a master's degree. Francis Parker has ten teachers with a doctorate, the largest number on the chart.
AVERAGE TEACHER SALARY
In public school districts, the average teacher salary is made public, as required by law. Private school teachers get a little more protection, since they are not public employees. Nevertheless, most of the private high schools that Chicago surveyed did provide salary averages. (An N/A in this column indicates a school that did not provide salary information.) The best-paid private high-school teachers are at Benet Academy in Lisle, where the average teacher salary is $75,000. Benet, along with the U. of C. Lab School (with an average salary of $71,884), Francis Parker ($68,300), and the Latin School of Chicago ($64,013), are the only schools on the chart to exceed the median teacher salary—$63,509—at Chicago area public high schools, as reported in the October issue of Chicago.
Since Chicago last surveyed the private high schools—in April 2002—there have been some changes with the ACT and the SAT, the national college admissions exams taken, usually, by high-school students in their junior year. Since 2001, state law has required that every public high-school junior take the ACT (the acronym stands for the American College Test); there seems to be some spillover into the private high schools, where more and more juniors seem to be opting for the ACT over the SAT. Five years ago, nearly all of the private high schools that responded to our survey provided SAT scores; on this year's chart, nearly half of the schools did not provide SAT scores. Principals report that fewer students take the SAT since significantly more colleges are willing to accept students based on their ACT scores. A perfect score on the ACT is 36.
In 2005, the College Board, which administers the SAT (originally an abbreviation for the Scholastic Aptitude Test), made some changes to the exam. The board revised the verbal component of the exam and renamed it critical reading; made the math component tougher; and added an essay component called writing. The top score in each component is 800; a perfect score on the SAT is now 2400. When comparing test scores from one school to another, it is important to remember that some private high schools are far more selective than others. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that schools with a lower acceptance rate will tend to score higher on ACT and SAT tests.
The three schools on our chart reporting the highest average ACT scores are the Latin School of Chicago (29.0), the University of Chicago Lab Schools (29.0), and Chicagoland Jewish (28.7). Chicagoland Jewish had the top SAT scores in critical reading (678) and writing (681); Chicago's Ida Crown Jewish Academy had the top SAT score in math (676).
In most instances, an N/A in either the ACT or any SAT column means that only a few students at a school took that particular test, and therefore the school was unable to provide a meaningful average score. There are some exceptions. Chicago's Maria High School failed to provide any test scores. Guerin College Prep, citing the policy of the Archdiocese of Chicago, declined to provide any test scores. As a matter of school policy, Francis Parker also declined to make public its students' test scores, while also pointing out that the school chooses not to rank individual students nor identify top quintiles of students, or students on the dean's list. "We don't even calculate the grade point average for students until they apply to college," says Dan Frank, the principal at Parker. While Parker takes the testing policy seriously, he adds, the school's focus is elsewhere. "We think the prime movers of thinking and learning take place in the classroom in collaboration between teachers and students," he says.