Chicago elementary options
July 28, 2011 9:36 PM   Subscribe

How do we figure out elementary school options in Chicago?

My wife and I are looking to buy a home in the Chicago city limits. What is the best way to narrow down CPS schools and compare against other options?

My current established method is to enter a home address here, and then compare against the recent list from Chicago magazine here.

Future kid is just a twinkle in the eye right now, but I'm just trying to factor in the cost into a price of a home. ex: If future home is based here, how much with non-public education cost out of pocket? Obviously things may change in that time too.

My wife is an elementary school teacher, so we feel like we don't need the BEST school, but I certainly don't want the worst. And in some neighborhoods I look up the default school and it's 4th from the bottom on the Chicago mag list.

And I have NO idea how the whole magnet school thing works?

So essentially, Chicago home buyers. . with young children or potential children . . what was your strategy?? Did you start with good school areas first and look for homes? Or did you focus on home/value and worry about the education later?
posted by patrad to Education (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
IMHO as the parent to a toddler, don't focus too hard on this. So many things can and will change in the 7ish years before future kid is in school... Don't stress on this.
posted by k8t at 9:51 PM on July 28, 2011

Chicago parent with two kids in CPS...seconding k8t:

I live on the NW side, and the schools are good to great. Bad neighborhoods tend to have bad schools. In that case, I would worry more about said twinkle making it to and from school, than what went on there.
posted by timsteil at 10:47 PM on July 28, 2011

Well, if it helps, it's more efficient to look up homes on in Chicago, because they actually list the elementary, middle, and high schools in the listing details.
posted by juniperesque at 5:41 AM on July 29, 2011

I'll disagree a little. If you intend to be in one place for a while you should know which school district you're in. We have lots of friends who bought without looking and are now one block away from the school district they want to be in or worse yet on the other side of the street.

The list of the best public schools will change in 5-7 years, but it will probably bear some similarity to the current list. I think the biggest problem you have is the list from Chicago Magazine it doesn't capture which schools are on the way up and which are on the way down, etc. There are a lot of good far northwest schools (Edgebrook, etc) that are in Chicago but the neighborhood will look more like a suburb. Classic Northside schools are [Bell, Coonley, Skinner], with schools like Lincoln and Waters being solid choices. Pulaski is perhaps on the way up as well.

You're not going to catch this all from a list, and it'll be different in a few years. When we were in your position we bought a house in an on the way up neighborhood with a borderline school. The school lagged the neighborhood and we ended up moving when our oldest was ready for school.
posted by true at 5:49 AM on July 29, 2011

As the mom of a 5 year old, I am currently stumbling through the CPS maze and there is so much to learn about it that isn't written down in summary fashion in one place. Let me try, as best as I can, to do that here. (Though any of these things can change with policy changes.)

First, what are you looking for in a school? Everyone is different. Our IDEAL school was a public school where our kids could walk there, had socioeconomic/racial/ethnic diversity, an excellent principal, involved parents who were welcomed into the school by the teachers/parents, small class sizes, art/music/theater offered along with everything else, and high test scores to enable kids to go to a quality high school.

As someone who is in education, I also knew that how much work I decided to put in at home or on my own with my child/ren would be an important factor in their eventual success.

At the highest level, there are 4 types of public school choices in Chicago:

Selective Enrollment Schools (SEES):

Two kinds: Gifted and Classical (Advanced Placement), but there are many types of schools in these two categories.

A child tests into these schools based upon the result of a test taken with the district. These tests are mysterious and secret. You bring your 4 year old child at a scheduled time to a central location, a kindly test administrator leads them into another room, tests the child and brings them back to you. Your child will have been specifically instructed by the tester not to tell you anything about the test. Parents have been desperate for years to know what is on these tests and some of the high octane ones have gone to great lengths to coach little Johnny or Susie on anything they can cram into a 4 year old brain to have them do well. Why? Well, these are excellent schools. There are only a handful of them. And they are free.

Downside of SEES schools:

1. You may have to drive a long way to get your child to their school, or send them on a CPS bus if that is still an option allowed by the budget.
2. Siblings are not given a spot based on the sibling relationship. If you have one child at a SEES school, and one elsewhere, that will be a logistical complication.

Children are admitted into the SEES schools based upon 3 things:

1. Their score on the test.
2. Their socioeconomic zone (based upon a recent census and allowing students who live in lower socioeconomic zones to take a certain percentage of seats)
3. How their parents ranked the school choices on a form they submitted to CPS prior to testing (did the parents rank a SEES school higher? Or an advanced placement school?)

These schools cannot be planned for. There are few seats and thousands of applicants. Do not base your housing choices on these schools.

Magnet and Magnet Cluster Schools

Most magnet and cluster schools are very strong schools, but they are all different. In general, though, a magnet or cluster school is a school where the parents have gone through hoops in order to get their child into the school, which means that there is a probability that they are more involved in their child's education at some level, and therefore might be more involved with the school.

These schools are entered via lottery. You get one form from CPS and list ALL of the magnet schools where you want your child to be entered into the lottery. (Zones are also considered for these schools as well.) Lotteries are held and are public, numbers/names are chosen, your child is put into a queue for the school based upon the number drawn. It is possible to be accepted into more than one school based on a lottery, or so far down the list on all of them that your chances of moving up in the queue are remote. You get the lottery results in March/April. Maybe you have gotten into the school of your choice outright. Maybe you are on a list and there are only 10-20 kids between your kid and a spot in that school. Parents all over the city are sifting through their options, trying to determine which school that little Janie was accepted to will be the one they pick. As parents decide to accept or reject their spot, other kids move up in the queue. This happens for months. It is not unusual for a child to receive notice in August or September of the next school year that they have been offered a seat at a magnet school when all of the dust has settled.

Additional siblings are automatically accepted into a Magnet school when one has been accepted. So, even less spots for the lower grades in magnet schools are available because many siblings take the seats. (Special hoops for parents of twins and triplets.)

Do not pick your house based on Magnet schools.

Charter Schools

Separate application process for each charter, separate application forms for each charter choice. Also lottery, don't assume Charters are better performing than CPS schools, some are not. Different charters are experimenting with different approaches to education.

Neighborhood Schools

(Note: I can only speak for Northside schools since I live on the northside. That limits the different specific schools I can speak to.) Although the news headlines would make you think otherwise, there are some very good neighborhood schools within the city of Chicago. Although plagued (like the others) with shortages of absolutely everything, some of the these schools are excellent contenders for the right families and students. But "right family and student" is going to depend upon student needs. Does your child absolutely need no more than 15-20 kids in class in order to stay focused and not loose their attention? Are you (the parent) willing to roll up your sleeves and get involved in the school? Are you willing to supplement arts/music/theater with other choices available in the city? Do you absolutely need after school programs because both parents work? Do you need to be closer to downtown, or are you okay with being at the "end of the EL line" in a sleepier neighborhood? And so on.

The magazine and report rankings of schools will tell you PART of the story based upon quantitative measures. Other sources of information are: CPS Obsessed blog, Yelp, Great Schools .org, and (if you are on the northside of Chicago) the Northside Parents Network. Talk to neighbors who send their kids to public NEIGHBORHOOD schools. Talk to friends of friends. Talk to other teachers. Who has a great principle? Which schools have strong and positive Local School Councils and PTA groups? Are there any "reinventing" schools that are being talked about? (Waters Elementary School in Ravenswood is one, Nettelhorst gets buzz.)

Unless you can be certain that a private school is a "Plan B" option for you, try to pick your neighborhood based on a good neighborhood school option. We chose our neighborhood that way. It isn't as close to the EL as I'd like (4 blocks) or very close to downtown, and we aren't in a swanky or hip neighborhood. But it is walkable, with lots of ethnic and racial diversity in the school, teachers who actually live in the neighborhood and send their kids to the school, an art/music/theater program supported by the neighborhood, a thriving school garden, an active and involved PTA, etc. Downsides? Kindergarten is only half day and is annexed because of lack of space in the main building (We use a local Montessori school instead for PreK and K). Class sizes are larger than I'd like after 4th grade or so, not as many after school options as a full-time working parent might need. Upsides? A very dynamic principal, excellent and highly educated teachers, involved parents, sunny/bright classrooms. A welcoming environment where they were very gungho about my pitching in and helping out (I'm even going over tonight to help paint the school theater) even though my child doesn't go there yet. A neighborhood where my child knows everyone's name. Where our neighbors hand us barbacoa over the backyard fence. Where you can hear English, Spanish, Korean, Arabic, and Tagalog spoken within the same walk down the block.

Choose your neighborhood based upon a school where you wouldn't mind getting involved, or where there are other options for you if SEES, Magnets, and Charters don't work out.
posted by jeanmari at 6:56 AM on July 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Eeks, okay, I just had some coffee and dropped off my pre-schooler at camp. Couple of corrections to the above answer:

How their parents ranked the school choices on a form they submitted to CPS prior to testing (did the parents rank a SEES school higher? Or an advanced placement school?)

It should be:

How their parents ranked the school choices on a form they submitted to CPS prior to testing (did the parents rank a Gifted School higher? Or a Classical school?)


Does your child absolutely need no more than 15-20 kids in class in order to stay focused and not loose their attention?

Should be LOSE, not loose.


Other helpful resources for sorting out the CPS school maze:

CPS School Locator: Allows you to see where specific schools are located by program. Allows you to see attendance boundaries (you have to select for that from the right hand menu) of a particular school. This is a wonky program and you may have to search for the same school more than once for it to work (I had to search for my neighborhood school twice in a row for it to show up.) Also, it shows the SEES and Magnet schools lumped in with neighborhood schools, giving the impression that anyone can attend these schools, but that is definitely not true with SEES and mostly not true with Magnet schools.

CPS School Map Library: In general, these maps allow you to see all of the schools within a certain zone. If you have a certain PART of the city you are looking to live in, this can be helpful.

Current Census Tract Map:
This is how they determine your socioeconomic tier/zone. CPS preferences (in order to even the playing field) used to be determined by race. Now they try to do it this way, but it has many problems because of the generalities here and how homeowners and rentals are lumped together. For now, if you are Zone 1, you have better preference ranking for schools for lotteries and SEES testing, but that also means you live in a very, very poor neighborhood with all of the factors that come with that status. (The PDF link on this page called "Census_Tract_Six_Factor_Tiers_12_15_10.pdf (809 KB)" has the overall City of Chicago map.)


More school types that overlay the four main categories above:

Small Schools Initiative: Either autonomous or school-within-a-school. Not a guarantee of good school performance, and admission guidelines vary from school to school. You have to look at each one individually.


Another resource for keeping up with CPS schools:

Chicago Catalyst


Some neighborhood schools have spaces available each year and offer "open enrollment" even if you do not live within the attendance boundaries. These change year to year, and are also filled via lottery, similar to magnet schools.

Few more things:

Some SEES and Classical schools are located in a larger neighborhood schools, but the programs are unrelated. For example,the Beaubien building houses a Regional Gifted Center AND the separate neighborhood school. The programs are not mixed or connected. While you might think there are advantages to the Regional Gifted Center (RGC) being in the same building, that may or may not be true depending upon the principal and the program. Kids in the neighborhood school watch "the smart kids" being led through the does that affect the culture of the school? I don't know. Are the neighborhood school teachers challenged in a positive or negative way by their RGC peers in the same building? Again, don't know. But be aware that when someone talks about a house being in the Beaubien or Bell or whatever neighborhood, that the neighborhood and SEES schools are different with different admissions policies.

A good sort on the GreatSchools site is to sort by Community Rating and look at those stats side-by-side with the GreatSchools rating (which is a score based on more quantitative stats). You still have to sift out the SEES, Magnet and Charter schools to get to the "sure thing" neighborhood schools, though.


You can do a couple of things to get up close and personal with school research:

1. Call and make an appointment to visit a neighborhood school. (Better if school is in session, obvs.)

2. Some schools will not take individual appointments but have designated Open House events for assessing the school. Most SEES schools and some magnet schools are this way. If you miss their Open House events, have to wait until next year. Many of these take place during school hours (which are working hours for working parents). They have not yet been scheduled for next year.

3. CPS School Fair: The south side fair is on 9/24/11 this year, and the north side fair is on 10/15/11. Not all CPS schools have booths at these fairs. But you can meet principals, sometimes a representative teacher, get information about testing and lotteries, etc.


My take on Classical Schools and Gifted Schools is a bit cynical, although I think that they get great results in the numbers. I met the Decatur Classical principal and assistant principal at a school fair. I work at a university teaching in the School of Education, so I'm pretty conversant in "school-ese". I stood back and watched them both "work" the parents who visited the table. With good reason, many parents are desperate to get their kids into these schools. The principal and assistant principal were relatively short with parents, sometimes flat out dismissive of their questions. They occasionally would ignore the parents who were looking over the materials on the table, and just talk and joke with each other. The common line was "We are ranked #1 in the State of Illinois, you'll just have to get your kid tested to see if you can get in, you're lucky if your kid gets into our school." This was quite a turn off, especially since their ranking comes from getting to cherry pick kids and not having to take kids or keep kids who don't meet their standards. Of COURSE you are going to be #1 if you get to choose the kids! On the other hand, what could they say? They can't comfort these parents or promise them anything. Later on, I talked to parents who have been disappointed with Decatur because they seem to discourage parental involvement in the school beyond financial donations. And I talked to at least one very highly educated parent from Romania who has decided absolutely not to apply for Decatur based upon a chance encounter she had with their office. She lives down the street from the school and knew nothing about this SEES/Magnet structure. She just dropped by the office with her four year old and asked for information. This woman has a Masters Degree in Economics, speaks many languages, and also happens to have a heavy accent. The office administrator told her, "No, this is a SPECIAL school. We don't take neighborhood kids. You have to TEST to come here. You and your daughter probably want to go to the school down the street." Yikes! So, a different point of view on the SEES and Classical schools. Caveat: Have never visited one myself, just have been to the school fair and the school obviously tests well. Could just be the school administration at Decatur. The principals at Bell and Coonley were gracious and helpful in answering questions, though the 1x a week recess at Coonley made my heart sink for those kids.


The other site to keep track of is the CPS Office of Academic Enhancement website. That is where all of the deadlines, dates, forms, and so on will be listed.


Yes, the system is nuts. Yes, I have spent more time on this issue than I ever did on my own college search. No, I cannot imagine what ESL parents or non-internet savvy parents do because it is difficult for me, a graduate school educated, English speaker to navigate this system. However, if you can navigate it, I think the advantages (for me) of living in the city are immense for kids and families. I spent some time growing up in the city and some time growing up in the suburbs myself. Although the suburbs were predictable and relatively safe, they were isolating, boring, bland, and un-walkable for someone like me. YMMV.
posted by jeanmari at 9:24 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's an update, and another monkey wrench in the works. Both this year and last year, CPS is still calling parents and filling spots from waitlists even after school has already started. My daughter was back at her nice, small private Montessori awaiting starting 1st grade in our neighborhood public school next year.

Friday, we got a call from a highly-regarded Magnet School that is just as diverse as our neighborhood school, but with more programming bells and whistles than we currently have. We were given until Monday morning to show up and register or the spot would be given to the next child. We were lucky enough to get the call on a FRIDAY so we had the weekend to regroup, talk to parents, drive by the school, and do some research. But holy crow, that did NOT seem like enough time.

On Sunday, feeling nauseous, someone wisely pointed out that we could always register and try it. If we hated it, we had about a week to get back to our private school or we could always switch back to the local neighborhood school. I was wild with worry that my child would feel bounced around and was destined for therapy early if this did not work out.

It was fine. Didn't faze her in the least. Kids are super resilient and she was excited to "have an adventure" at a "big kid" school. Day Two and she was chomping at the bit to get back there this morning. Yes, I think the class sizes are far too large. But the place was swarming with competent, caring parent volunteers. I just met the mom of a delightful new classmate of my daughter on the playground this morning who is from Guinea. She also got the Friday call and we commiserated. The lovely librarian stopped by while we were talking and told me how glad that she was that Grace came, and that she was already enjoying her funny personality. I expected big problems and was pleasantly surprised. Everything has its pro's and con's This public school thing is a big adventure for sure.
posted by jeanmari at 8:25 AM on October 5, 2011

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