Families search for ‘hidden gem’ high schools as application season begins

The day before applications to high schools opened in Chicago, a group of parents and their children strolled through a cavernous room at Disney II, a magnet elementary school on Chicago’s Northwest side, at a huge fair where various schools pitched their programs and attractions.

Would-be recruits and their parents were holding clipboards, brochures, and catalogues. Some prospective students betrayed their boredom by dragging their feet around the room; others fervently discussed course choices and sports programs with their parents.

They learned about Mather High’s Career and Technical Education program, Lincoln Park High’s International Baccalaureate classes and private companies’ test-prep courses for high school entrance exams — and much more.

They were preparing for Monday, which ushered in one of the more complicated and controversial processes in Chicago public education: school applications, where eighth-graders around the city compete for entry to selective-enrollment, magnet and charter high schools.

For the second year, families will use a new online portal, GoCPS, that aims to streamline the application process for students choosing from 250 programs in 132 high schools.

The Hidden Gems Chicago High School Fair seeks to advertise lesser-known courses and extracurricular activities at more than 30 public and private high schools around the city as well as a few from out of state. More than 100 families attended.

Competition for Chicago’s top-tier selective-enrollment schools is notoriously difficult — one in five high-school options pulls in 10 applicants for every seat — and favors students whose families have the language and skills to follow the complicated applications process. Sunday’s fair aimed to offer more achievable alternatives.

We “take the pressure off by realizing all of the great options in the Chicagoland area,” the fair’s promotional materials read. Compiled by Chicago Schools GPS, a company that, for a fee, helps walk parents through the public and private school systems.

The fair featured traditional high schools with specific programs, magnet schools, charters, military schools and Catholic schools.

Some parents attending the fair were determined to keep their child in a public school, even if it’s not their neighborhood schools. Others were on the brink of leaving the city altogether or wouldn’t rule out boarding school in Wisconsin to further their child’s education.

Here’s how five families who attended Sunday’s fair are approaching the high school application process:

Olivia Arroyo
Parent of a sixth-grader
Montclare neighborhood

We want to know what we have to look forward to so far as schools, programs, what the student body is like and make sure we make an informed decision before we start applying for any schools.

Our local neighborhood school is Steinmetz. I know that they have a few programs — honors, AP programs — but that is just not something we are interested in.

With the Noble network we have realized that they are pushing the testing so aggressively. I have heard the kids that come from a Noble school kind of struggle because the school is only focused on getting them to push these high test scores.

We came hoping to look more into the schools that have the seventh- and eighth-grade transition programs. That is really what we were coming to see. We would rather have him be in one school for six years so that we’re not bouncing him around and he can create solid relationships with his teachers and peers.

I don’t think there is a point in paying for tuition [at a private school] when there are great public options. We just want to be informed.

Willette Duncan
Parent of an eighth-grader
Rogers Park

We want to find other options besides the selective-enrollment high schools, other good options in Chicago. I am really big on education — I was considering moving out of Chicago — so we just want to learn more about the resources available. I was thinking about moving to Niles. It has one of the top high schools in Illinois.

I haven’t really looked into charter schools, mainly public and private. Our neighborhood school is Sullivan High School. I went to Sullivan, so I know it may be a little better but I don’t feel like they have as much of the resources and college preparation.

Trevel Andrews, 13
Willette Duncan’s son

I look for leadership programs, AP honors courses and the IB programs. The thing I look into is the student-to-teacher ratio, is it a smaller classroom or a large classroom, and is there on- or off-campus learning.

Andrea Guzman
Parent of a seventh-grader
Little Village neighborhood

We wanted to learn about the diverse opportunities our kids could have. As a parent, I am very interested always in the community that is in the school, really feeling out their sense of community. We all need a community around us to support us in our future, so relationships are very important.

Obviously academics are really important but also the opportunities the students will have once they are done with high school. It provides a lot of open doors, what is my son going to be exposed to moving forward? What trips are they going to go on? What cultures will they get to learn about?

All of that matters to me, because it’s not just about what your scores are, but also personal development.

We are really connected to the Little Village-Lawndale High School. They unfortunately don’t have an automotive program there. We’ve been connected to the high school from dirt until now, but if it doesn’t provide what my son is looking for then we might have to look somewhere else.

Judy Highman
Parent of a seventh-grader
South Shore neighborhood

There are too many options for high schools in Chicago, I don’t know how to narrow it down, so we are starting now at seventh grade. Even here it’s still overwhelming, so we are just trying to narrow it down and get a feel for how to do the whole high school application and how to figure out what school is going to benefit her the most.

At this point, I’m not eliminating anything. One school had a student-teacher ratio of 12 to 1, so it’s not just the standard classroom environment. I don’t want her to apply for a high school and regret it. I can’t sway her decision without showing her what is available.

Andre Aguilar
Parent of an eighth-grader
Humboldt Park neighborhood

We don’t want to settle for a neighborhood school. I know that Clemente is probably a little bit better than it was before, but we want to explore all of the different options and make sure she is going to somewhere that she is going to fit and excel.

Commute is a big one. We don’t want her to be going too far. Other than that, we want her to go to a school that is pushing for the kids to actually excel,.I don’t want her to go to a school where teachers are just letting the kids flounder. I guess smaller maybe, hopefully, and go somewhere with an IB program.