Are Chicago Public Schools Good?

Moving to Chicago can be intimidating when it comes to figuring out the school system. Many parents wonder to themselves “Can I send my children to a Chicago Public School?”.  At SchoolSparrow, we believe the answer to this question is an emphatic “YES!”, and here’s why.


CPS and LSC’s

Over 30 years ago, the former US Education Secretary, William J Bennet, proclaimed CPS as the worst public school system in the country. Since then, there have been radical changes at Chicago Public Schools, starting in 1988 with the implementation of decentralized schools. Neighborhoods in Chicago could now vote in members of Local School Councils (LSC’s). The LSC’s were formed for each school to oversee school affairs. Importantly, the LSC had a say in principal selection at their school.

william j bennett

William J Bennett

Chicago also changed fiscal policy by allocating funds to individual schools on a cost per student basis. This gave principals more control over budget expenditures at their schools. These changes have worked together to create the school system we have today, which without a doubt, has improved drastically.

graph up trend

CPS Displays Remarkable Gains

Consider this Stanford study which uncovered Chicago as the best city for education gains from 3rd to 8th grade. This was not only true among large cities, but also compared to smaller communities across the country. Certainly a far cry from Bennet’s 1987 remarks about Chicago Public Schools. This isn’t to say CPS is the best school system, but it’s fair to say Chicago has seen remarkable gains.

But how did Chicago Public Schools see such an increase in performance?

The book “How to Walk to School” by Jacqueline von Edelberg and Susan Kurland documents how one CPS neighborhood school transformed from an underperforming school to a school embraced by the community.

In the book, a group of local parents with nearly school-aged children gave the principal a wish list of what it would take to send their children to Nettelhorst Elementary in Lakeview. At the time, Nettlehorst bused students in from overcrowded schools all over the City of Chicago.

The Nettlehorst Turn-around

With support from the Principal, the parents went into action and worked on the wishlist. This culminated in an open house where dozens of families signed their kids up for preschool.  As those preschoolers moved to Kindergarten, then 1st grade and so on, the grades behind filled in with neighborhood students. Even the students that had historically demonstrated low performance on standardized tests saw a significant increase in performance.

kids learning excellence

Giving budgetary power to principals, and allowing community stakeholders a strong voice in hiring principals is a winning combination. Add to this a strong group of organized parents who are supporting the school through fundraising, volunteering and a commitment to sending their children to the school, and the recipe is in place for a turnaround.

Dozens of schools have repeated this story all over Chicago, including Coonley Elementary in the North Center neighborhood of Chicago. Coonley Elementary’s “Friends of Coonley” annual charity auction fundraiser is almost entirely organized by parents. And it raises nearly $200,000 in one night for the school.

volunteer graphic

Chicagoans Recognize CPS Improvements

There are other factors that contributed to both the increase in school quality and the recognition among Chicagoans that many of our schools have become solid learning institutions. However, there is still a collective conscience out there that still believes Chicago Public Schools are not good enough. Realtors report this common question: “Are Chicago schools good?”.

One of those factors was the 2008 financial crisis.

tight wallet

Young married couples purchased homes in Chicago during the years leading up to 2008, with a plan to at least consider moving to the suburbs when they had children in a few years; but after 2008, this plan wasn’t an option anymore for some.

Not only were they likely underwater on their Chicago home, but also mortgages were harder to come by due to tightened lending standards. Those with young children were practically forced to take a harder look at Chicago schools, and many were pleasantly surprised by what they saw.

With all the bad press about teacher strikes, unbalanced budgets, cheating teachers, and controversial mass school closings (have we missed anything?), Chicago Public Schools still has a lot of work to do. But, when it comes to educating children, Chicago has passed a tipping point and there are literally dozens of schools (maybe hundreds) that are doing this  exceptionally well, and we expect the gains to continue.

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Our mission is to bring equitable school rankings to all families in the US, so that a home purchase decision can be made with a more balanced view of school quality. Today school rankings are biased towards privileged neighborhoods, and they unfairly discount schools with the socio-economic diversity. We aim to bring equity to school rankings.

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