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Navigating the system: Chicago

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By Ryan Clark

Magnets and selective-enrollment schools

Aside from neighborhood schools, magnets are another appealing choice, though they come with no guarantee of admission. While magnet cluster schools have a spot for neighborhood children, full magnets are completely application based. Almost all of Chicago’s magnet schools have an area of focus, such as math, fine arts, and even agriculture.

Alongside magnets, CPS offers other selective-enrollment schools, including 11 regional gifted centers, which have an academic area of focus, and five ultra-competitive classic elementary schools, such as Skinner North (GS rating 10), which take a well-rounded liberal arts approach to education.

Competition for spaces in these high-performing public schools is fierce. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, "many neighborhood schools have significantly lower test scores, and parents see the competitive and magnet programs as their only option for a good public education."

Last year, 31,185 teens applied for just over 3,000 spaces at the city’s most selective magnet high schools. The admissions rate was roughly 10 percent -- odds comparable to, in recent years, those for Columbia University's freshman class.

Adding to the confusion, the district's rules for gaining admission to these especially desirable schools have changed twice in the last two years, most recently when race was replaced by income as one of the factors used to determine how students are assigned. And the rules will be revised again for the 2011-2012 school year.

Chicago uses what's known as an "open enrollment policy," allowing families to apply to a school outside of their neighborhood when space is available. The number of open enrollment spaces varies from school to school. The Chicago Tribune's "10 tips for parents in the school-admission game" [link to: ] is a helpful read if you’re interested in any magnet, gifted, or selective-enrollment school.

Charter schools

Today, Chicago offers upwards of 40 charter schools. Among Chicago's charter schools is the Knowledge is Power Program's (KIPP) Ascend Elementary (GS rating 3), located in west Chicago. KIPP's demanding charter schools focus on core curriculum and require long hours - often 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. - and bi-weekly Saturday classes. Serving students from low-income families, KIPP schools have a reputation for student achievement.

Private schools

Of course, there’s always the option of looking outside the public school system. There are almost 400 private schools in Chicago. The vast majority are religious. Private schools are often expensive, but can be an option for families with means – and can be a wonderful solution if the city’s public options don’t meet your child’s needs.

Ryan Clark is the assistant editor at and a freelance writer.