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Chicago education and international schools guide

Chicago is one of those cities where parents are spoilt for choice where education is concerned. From international schools to local public schools and even charter schools, there is no obvious limit to the options.


International schools

Most international schools in the city, such as the British International School of Chicago, Lincoln Park, are private and fairly costly but are easily available. The city has seen an increase in the number of international schools recently including Ogden International School of Chicago; on the other hand, the Lycée Francais de Chicago has been here since 1995. International schools would be defined as schools that offer a curriculum different from the American common core and high school diploma.

Some of these schools take children from the age of about three all the way up, through secondary school. There are a few (they tend to be private) American schools that do this as well. If you are only going to be in Chicago for a few years and are going to return to your home country, then staying in the system that your child is used to, might be more logical to you.

Public (state) schools

Chicago public elementary schools are neighbourhood schools. This means that you have to live within the boundary lines drawn up by the city for the school, to obtain a place. Visa issues aside, if you do move to within the catchment area of a public school, you are entitled to register your child at the school and it is rare that you will not get a space.

This might be a good option for families that are coming over but who are not getting the full expat package that the bigger companies or more senior jobs offer. It is free and if you strike the postcode lottery and find a home in the catchment area of some of the more desirable schools, then it really is an excellent option. Bear in mind, however, that proximity to good public schools pushes up house prices and the cost of renting. The only exceptions to the rule is schools that are “magnet” schools or “gifted” schools. For some magnet schools, a lottery system is used to allocate spaces; in the gifted schools, children as young as six can apply to take test which will ascertain whether they qualify to attend.

There are several public schools that operate as “Academic Centres”. These are geared for exceptional students in the seventh and eighth grades. The academic centres follow an accelerated learning programme which can sometimes be two grades above the students’ current grade level. 

Students qualify based on tests they take in the sixth grade (they take the same test as the selective enrolment high schools – the Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress Test or NWEA MAP for short.) The joke that local Chicagoans make, is that it is easier for your child to get into Harvard than into one of these academic centres; that may be the case, not just for academic centres but for some of the more selective magnet and gifted elementary schools.

Secondary school

The American high (secondary) school system starts at 14 years old, whether you are in a private or public school. In Chicago, there are neighbourhood high schools that work in the same vein as the elementary schools in that they take any student living in their catchment area, but there are also the selective enrolment schools.

Competition for spaces in selective enrolment schools is fierce. Students have to go through two sets of exams (the NWEA MAP test and the Selective Enrolment School Test) to be considered and the requisite scores to get into these schools in recent years has got higher and higher. The prestige is so great that thousands of students apply each year for the very limited spots and preparation often begins the year before the exams.

Compare it to the 11+ exams in the UK for grammar schools: just as tough, possibly tougher. Many children start getting tutored for these exams one, sometimes two years before they actually take the MAP test. The exams test students at extremely high levels - not just what they know but how they handle pressure. Eg: The MAP test (Maths and Reading) is done on a computer. For every question in each test that you answer correctly, you move on to a more difficult question. If you do not answer the question correctly, you are given an easier question and move back in the test. Naturally, every incorrect answer will lower your MAP score. 

International Baccalaureate

Some Chicago schools also offer the IB Diploma. Entrance to the public schools is test based, although the cut-off scores are lower than those of the selective enrolment schools. Some elementary schools in Chicago also offer the IB Middle Years Program (MYP); do ask if it’s offered at the school you are considering. Two schools (Lincoln Park High School  and William Howard Taft High School) also offer the relatively new IB Careers Programme as an alternative to the Diploma.

Private, Montessori and charter schools

The private schools in Chicago also require applicants to take enrolment tests, and the test depends on the school.  For the more prestigious schools, an interview may be required. The final qualification is almost always the American High School Diploma plus Advanced Placement courses but GEMS World Academy is the only school to offer the full International Baccalaureate programme from starting school.

Chicago has two Montessori schools that teach up to the age of 14, Drummond Montessori School is confined to a Montessori curriculum but Oscar Mayer Magnet School combines the Montessori approach with an American curriculum and the IB Middle Years Programme.

One somewhat overlooked group of schools in Chicago are the charter schools. Charter schools are privately-run schools, independent of the Chicago Public Schools system but nevertheless accountable for advancing student achievement. They do receive government funding and are like public schools in that they are free, open to all children, and are not selective. Some charter schools have become extremely successful and for families who are considering the public school system, they’re worth a look.

For more information on the schools in Chicago, please go to each school’s individual entry on the GSGI database or The GSGI article 'Best schools in Chicago considered by expats'.


The Midwest is a large bit of America. If you find yourself in a small town or city in the Midwest that can’t cater to your children’s needs, but you want to keep your child in the same country and fairly close at hand, yet receiving a good quality education, you might want to consider boarding schools in the greater Chicago area. A lot of these schools have students from all over the world and are well versed in not only educational needs but pastoral care as well. This is emphasised by the fact that the majority are Christian schools and have a distinct religious approach. 

Special Education Needs

If your child has special needs, there are some private schools that will have support for that. Always ask before you tour a school if it caters to students with special needs and which specific ones. If your child attends a Chicago public school, he or she will definitely get special needs support.

How much support will depend on how far you push, the budget for the school and the amount of support your child will need. If you feel that the support your child is getting in a public school is not sufficient, there are private special needs educators  who can supplement your child’s learning.


Chicago is a very well connected city, thus, transport to and from school can take many forms. If you make friends easily, hang around after school and start chatting to parents at the school (also a great way to make instant friends in a new city) and see if they live near enough to carpool with you. There are school buses for children that attend public schools in Chicago but you will still need to get your child to a stop on the route, if it is not close to your house, in which case you might just be better off taking your child to school yourself.

And finally…

There is a plethora of options open to you when you look for schools for your child in Chicago. Just make sure that you go into a school prepared with the questions, that you need answering. Actually write them down, as school tours can sometimes be quite overwhelming. Try and observe the children in school and the teachers. Go with your gut. If something makes you uneasy, either probe deeper or walk away. 

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