Basics of CPS
This is a work-in-progress about the way CPS works that will hopefully be phrased in normal-person. All information is filtered through my slightly cynical point-of-view about giant bureaucratic organizations.
Q: My child isn’t born yet, do I need to start worrying?
A: Yes and no. Ideally you will rent or purchase a home in a part of Chicago that has a good neighborhood school so you don’t have to agonize about where to send your future child. If you know you’re going to have kids, it really makes sense to research this before you buy a home.
Q: If this is all so difficult, shouldn’t I just move to the suburbs?
A: No. It will slowly make your soul wither. And the taxes are often higher. But your suburban friends likely have a different opinion.
Q: How do I know what school my child can attend?
A: Every home is Chicago has one neighborhood elementary school and high school assigned to it. If you live within that school’s boundaries, your child is guaranteed admission at any time. Ideally, you will pre-register before the school year starts, but you can actually walk in at any time and they will enroll your child. That is the only school where your child has guaranteed admission (unless they have a sibling at another school and sometimes that is not even a sure bet.)
To find out your neighborhood school using your address, use this link.
http://schoollocator.cps.k12.il.us. This will also show you which Magnet schools you can apply to for the Proximity lottery. When you click on the school name, you can see the boundary area.
If you get stuck or find conflicting data, try calling CPS’s demographic department at 773-553-3270.
To view a specific neighborhood school’s boundaries, look here: http://cps.edu/Schools/Find_a_school/Pages/findaschool.aspx
When you get to the school’s main page, click on the map at the left. The colored area around that school is the neighborhood boundary. Keep in mind that side of the street may vary (one side in one district, the other side in another district.) The proximity boundary for Magnets is not shown on these maps. To determine if you’re in the proximity area for a Magnet, use this link and enter your address. http://schoollocator.cps.k12.il.us
Q: How do I know if my neighborhood school is good?
A: “Good” is a relative assessment. If you like data, test scores can be a decent indicator of academic success. See here: http://www.cps.edu/Schools/Find_a_school/Pages/Findaschool.aspx. Keep in mind that test scores only reflect those of kids in grades 3-8. Currently in Chicago, lower-income kids test lower than higher-income kids, so a school with a heavy population of low-income 3-8th graders may look low on test scores, but the younger students in Prek-2nd grade may be a different story. Other ways to find out about schools are on npnparents.org discussion boards and greatschools.net. Take a tour of the school. Hang out at the school playground to talk to people whose kids are enrolled. An active parent or “friends of” group can be a good sign of support and involvement. There are likely plenty of CPS schools that have a good principal and devoted teachers that just aren’t on people’s radar yet.
Some neighborhood schools have Magnet Cluster status, but that doesn’t mean they are like the other Magnet schools that use a lottery. Magnet Cluster means the school has a special focus like Fine Arts or Literature. See below for more info.
Other places to get school data:
If you like Excel sheets you can look up test scores on schools cut many different ways:
And this site shows the results of parent and teacher surveys that tell you a little more about the culture at a school.
Here is information on how to find a school’s Report Card that summarizes many of its measurements.
Q: If my neighborhood school isn’t good (or doesn’t have strong enrollment) can I do anything about that?
A: Yes, if you’re willing to bust your ass. It’s not as simple as calling CPS and demanding change/resources. But one of the great changes that has happened in the past few years in CPS is that groups of neighbors have gotten together to help their neighborhood schools flourish. This includes fundraising, getting on the Local School Council, marketing the school to help attract other families, and working with the school’s principal to offer support and resources and to let them know that a group of local parents will be holding them to high standards. Getting involved in your neighborhood school can be a great experience – you can really create a sense of community by working together. And there’s nothing better than having all the kids in the neighborhood go to school together. It’s worth all the effort but takes a couple high energy yet
Q: I want to buy a house. What should I keep in mind?
A: Buying a home that has a well-regarded neighborhood elementary school will go a long way in alleviating your anxiety. Having a local school where all the neighbors send their kids can be an amazing thing in the city, creating a real sense of community. Walking to school is fun! You can still apply to gifted/magnets/etc but knowing you’ve got a good fallback is huge. This web site is helpful at finding real estate listings crossed by school ratings: https://schoolsparrow.com/
Q: What is there beyond the neighborhood school?
A: For elementary, Chicago has Magnet, Charter, Gifted, and Classical programs/schools. (And something weird called Magnet Clusters but those don’t really count.) For 6th and 7th grade there are Academic Centers.
Magnet – These schools admit students in part based on a lottery system and in part based on neighorhood proximity (this was new for the 2010/2011 school year.) Students from anywhere in the city can apply for the lottery spots. These schools tend to have higher test scores because they attract families who are willing to send their kid out of the neighborhood for more academic rigor. The Magnet schools get a few extra resources than the neighborhood schools do (such as full day Kindergarten guaranteed.) Some magnet schools are very difficult (impossible) to get into because so many kids apply each year. (Note: For the selection process for Magnet schools for school year 2010/2011 CPS tried out a new way to balance students where more spots were given to in-neighborhood kids and siblings.) See more info here: http://cps.edu/Pages/newadmissionsplan.aspx. As of Sept 2010, we’re waiting to see if the policy will be revised for the 2011/2012 school year. The applications will be read on 10/1/10 and for the first time, there will be on CENTRAL application that you mail to the Office of Academic Enhancement (OAE.) You can apply to up to 20 magnet schools on that one form. You should NOT sent applications directly to the schools any more. This is a thing of beauty as in the past, school offices were known to be black holes at times and applications disappeared. http://www.cpsmagnet.org/index.jsp has the applications.
Charter – These are schools that are allowed to operate outside the normal CPS rules, even hiring non-union teachers. I realize I have no idea how one gets their kid into a charter school or how hard it is to get in. Have to look into that one…..
Gifted – These are schools or programs within schools that kids have to test into based on logic and reasoning abilities. Most kids enter in Kindergarten or 1st grade and are then guaranteed a spot until 8th grade. Classes are taught at 1-2 grade levels above the standard CPS curriculum and the kids are *theoretically* given projects and work that is more in-depth. Testing is done by the GEAP office.
Classical – These schools are geared to kids who excel in reading and math and the classes are taught at 1-2 grade levels above the CPS curriculum. Kids test into these program (on a GEAP test that is separate from the Gifted test.) Kids enter in Kindergarten. The curriculum is more classical/traditional and Latin is taught. Some of the Classical schools go up to 6th grade only which require you to find a spot for 7th and 8th grade.
Magnet Cluster – These are neighborhood schools that have a specific focus like Art, Writing, or Math. By having Magnet Cluster status, the school get an extra teaching position in their specialty topic and may even give that topic a bit more focus in the curriculum. These still enroll as neighborhood schools though. So you are guaranteed admission if you live in the boundaries and if you don’t, you have to lottery in. I wish they’d get the word “magnet” out of the name — it’s misleading.
Other Neighborhood Schools – Some neighborhood schools have extra room to accept students. As a school is “up-and-coming” there is often room to lottery into the school as they need to keep growing. Typically after a few years when these schools get popular and people seek them out or move into the neighborhood they stop taking out-of-hood kids. This is what’s happened at North side schools like Nettelhorst, Burley, Blaine, Waters, Coonley, and other. Getting into a growing school where parents are involved is often a great way to get your foot in the door in a school with like-minded parents who want to help their local school flourish. These schools often attend the NPN school fair as they’re more actively seeking students. Some that come to mind on the North side now are Pierce, Jahn, Hamilton, and Prescott. Let me know if there are others you know of outside my little sphere of knowledge. In the past, you could butter up a principal to get into neighborhood schools (meaning show you’re really committed to helping the school) but CPS has cracked down on Principal Discretion so that’s a bit more iffy these days. In the end, if a school has open seats and you want in after school begins, there is usually a way to make that happen. You apply to other neighborhood schools using the online application for magnet schools.
Applications for magnet/gifted/classical schools are usually ready in October.
The application period ends around mid-December (the last day of school before holiday break)
Applications are here under the Apply tab : http://cpsmagnet.org/
NPN (Neighborhood Parent’s Network) holds a big school fair each year. You must be an NPN member to attend ($55 annual membership which also give you access to their lively discsussion boards.) Info at http://www.npnparents.org/index.asp.
As a note, there were not that many public schools exhibiting at the fair in recent years. It appears to be mainly religious/private schools, but there are a few of the “up-and-coming” CPS schools there. The charter schools have their own fair run by CPS.
Q: How do I know when school are giving tours or having open houses?
A: Here is a calendar that posts open house dates. I’m assuming that it’s up to the schools to give this information to CPS, so not every school may be on here. Also, call to double-check beforehand in case of last minute changes. Other than that, you will need to call the schools one by one. Some schools have a highly organized web site (usually thank to a motivated parent who is willing to keep it up-to-date.) Many people take kids or babies on the tours, but some can be long, so be sure to bring snacks, toys, books, etc. (Will be updated in Fall 2014.)
Q: Is there any other way to get my child into a school?
A: Right now, not really. For elementary schools, there is not currently any principal discretion like there used to be. In schools that are more “under the radar” and don’t accumulate a long lottery list for their open neighborhood spots, you can sometimes work with a principal to get a seat if spaces are open, more likely in higher grades than K. But it can never hurt to ask. Also, if you want a certain school and you know your lottery number makes you a possibility, it can be a good idea to make sure they (the school office) knows who are you and that you REALLY want a space. As they go down the lottery list, making phones calls, some schools may choose not to leave messages. You want them to make sure they don’t somehow pass you by as they fill their spots because you were hard to reach.
The Selective Enrollment High Schools DO have a principal discretion process that is now fairly regimented. After initial offers are made, kids can pick one high school to submit a PD request. There is no criteria that principals must use to select the PD spots. They can choose siblings, kids good at a sports, kids who missed the cutoff, kids with extenuating circumstance. It’s up to them.
Q: When do I apply to the schools?
A: For the Options schools (magnet, gifted, classical, other neighborhood schools) you apply during the Fall of the school year BEFORE your child will attend school. For many people, this is the year your child is age 4 (their 2nd year of Prek.) Applications are usually due the 3rd week in December (see the CPS site for the exact date.) So yes, you are forced to think about what school your current 4-year-old might excel in when they are an 8th grader – a concept that can fry a parent’s mind.
The application process is roughly Oct 1 to mid December.
Q: How many schools can I apply to?
A: The magnet/neighborhood form limits you to 20 schools. The number of gifted/classical schools to which you could apply has traditionally been 6 total.
Q: What do I need to do to apply?
A: There is an online application for the Magnet/Neighborhoods schools and one for the Gifted/Classical schools.
There are 2 tests your elementary child can take – Gifted and Classical that measure different skills. When you select your top 6 schools on the form, they determine which test/s your child will take based on which schools you chose. In theory, it’s worth selecting at least 1 of each type so your child takes both tests before Kindergarten. Even if you don’t like the current options, who knows what CPS might open at the last minute?
Q: Can I just apply to all the schools and tour the ones I get into?
A: Keep in mind that some of the schools offer very limited or even NO tours after the notification dates. So you might be offered a spot and need to make a decision in 48 hours but you can’t get a tour in that timeframe. There is a collossal timesuck as parents end up touring tons of schools, only to get a spot in 1 or 2 (or none) of them. But overall, I am a fan of touring schools if you have time. It will help you evaluate a school on short notice and also help you assess your neighborhood school in comparison.
Q: What are the odds of my child getting into a magnet school via the lottery?
A: It depends on the school, but overall, getting into one specific school you want is pretty slim. For instance Hawthorne had over 1000 applications for 2 Kindergarten classes (56 spots.) Naturally, the more magnet schools you apply to, the better your odds of getting into one. Living in an area where you are magnet proximity helps your odds. Not everyone lives in a Magnet proximity. Some people live in multiple magnet proximity areas.
Q: What are my child’s odds of getting into a Gifted/Classical school?
A: That totally depends on their test scores. The GEAP offices ranks the kids by test score and hands out the spots going down the list, based on the preferences you listed. Kids who score in the 97-99% percentile (meaning they scored better than most of the kids in the country) are typically offered a spot somewhere. Lower than that, your child may be offered spots as they open up throughout the summer or at the very beginning of the school year. For each school there are 4 ranked lists, by socio-economic Tier.
Q: Do siblings get priority in the schools?
A: In neighborhood schools, a sibling in the neighborhood gets in automatically of course. If the older sibling is out-of-hood, the younger will *usually* be given a spot by the principal, but there is not a total guarantee. Always best to keep up with the principal to see how enrollment is looking. They have to give priority to the neighborhood kids, so any out-of-hood kids get second priority even if they have a sibling in the school.
In magnet schools, as of 2010, younger siblings are guaranteed a spot. Twins in the same grade automatically get the next lottery spot on the list after their sibling, so will typically get a space.
In gifted/classical/academic center schools, there is NO sibling preference at all. The younger sibling must test in, just like the older one did. Which is simultaneously fair and inefficient as families with several smart kids may end up with them at different gifted/classical/neighborhood schools.
Q: Can I sign my child up at 2 CPS schools and decide later which one I will send them to?
A: No, you can only be registered at 1 CPS school at a time. If Magnet school X calls to offer you a spot and you accept, you will be un-enrolled for next year at your current school. Make sure you plan it out strategically.
Q: Is the gifted/classical testing accurate?
A: From what I’ve read, testing at the preK level can be a crapshoot, depending on your child’s mood that day. I’ve heard that if a kid tests well, they probably really ARE very smart, but many smart kids won’t test well for a variety of reasons. So there are many false negatives, but few false positives. Testing before 1st grade is probably a bit more reliable since kids are less shy and less apt to be having a random meltdown the day of the test. Research says that testing in 3rd grade and up tends to be valid.
Q: What is on the Gifted/Classical tests? How can they test kids so young?
A: That is one of the best-kept secrets in the city. For some reason the kids don’t talk afterwards and nobody in CPS will divulge any details. My personal best guess is that the Gifted test is the Sanford-Binet (an IQ test,) but that is just speculation and I can’t find any samples of that test online anywhere. I imagine that the Classical test is checking pre-reading and math skills since that is the emphasis of the curriculum.
Here is a handy document that show the timing and requirements of application by grade: