Chicago is one of those cities where parents are spoilt for choice for schools. From international schools to local schools and even charter schools, really, the world is your oyster.
Most international schools in the city are private and fairly costly but are easily available and the city has seen an increase in the number of international schools in the city in the last 5 years. 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 3 all the way up and through secondary school. There are some American schools that do this as well but they do also tend to be the private schools. 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 neighborhood schools. This means that you have to live in the catchment area i.e live within the boundary lines drawn up by the city for the school, to obtain a place in that school. Visa issues aside, if you do move to an area and there is a public school whose catchment area your home falls into, you are entitled to register your child at the school and it is rare that you will not get a space at the school. 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 house prices and therefore rent will be higher in these areas because of their proximity to good public schools. The only exceptions to the rule 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 6 can apply to take test which will ascertain whether they qualify to attend.
There are seven public schools that operate as “Academic Centers”. These are geared for exceptional students in the seventh and eighth grades. The academic centers follow an accelerated leaning program which can sometimes be two grades above grade the students’ current grade level. Students qualify based on tests they take in the sixth grade (they take the same test as the selective enrollment 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 centers; that may be the case not just for academic centers but for some of the more selective magnet and gifted elementary schools.
For high school or secondary school, the American high school system starts at 14 years old whether you are in a private or public school. In Chicago, there are neighborhood high schools that work in the same vein as the neighborhood elementary schools in that they take any student living in their catchment area, and then there are the selective enrollment schools.
Competition for spaces in selective enrollment schools is fierce. Students have to go through two sets of exams (the NWEA MAP test and the Selective Enrollment School Test) to be considered and the requisite scores to get into these schools in recent years have gotten higher and higher. The prestige of getting into these schools is so great that thousands of students apply each year for the very limited spots and preparation normally begins the year before the exams for some.
Liken 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 student at extremely high levels - not just what they know but how they handle pressure. Eg: The MAP test is done on a computer. You are tested in Maths and Reading. 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 question will lower your MAP score.
Chicago public schools also offer the IB in some of their high schools. Entrance to these schools is test based although the cutoff scores are lower than those of the selective enrollment schools. Some elementary schools in Chicago are also starting to offer the Middle Years Program (MYP) for the IB; do ask if it’s offered at the school you are considering.
The private schools in Chicago also require applicants to take enrollment tests, and the test depends on the school. For the more prestigious schools, an interview may be required.
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 because they, like public schools, are free, open to all children, and are not selective. Some charter schools have become extremely successful in the past few years and for families who are considering the public school system, they’re worth a look.
The Midwest is a large bit of America. If you find yourself in a small towns 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.
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 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.
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 questions 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.