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.


Its been over 30 years ago since the former US Education Secretary, William J Bennet, stated that CPS was the worst public school system in the country among large cities. Since then, there have been radical changes at Chicago Public Schools, starting with the implementation of decentralized schools in 1988 where local school councils (LSC’s) were formed to, among other things, vote in principals at local schools.

william j bennettWilliam J Bennett

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

graph up trend

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–a far cry from Bennet’s 1987 remarks about Chicago Public Schools. This isn’t to say Chicago has the best school system in the country, 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 provides an account of how one CPS neighborhood school underwent a transformation from an underperforming school to a school that is now 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. Nettlehorst, at the time, was primarily comprised of students who were bused in from overcrowded schools all over the City of Chicago.

With support from the Principal, the parents went into action and worked on the wishlist, culminating 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 high performing students. Even the students that had historically demonstrated low performance on standardized tests saw a significant increase in performance.

kids learning excellence

A system that gives budgetary power to the principal, and allows community stakeholders a strong voice in hiring principals seems to be a winning combination, at least for Chicago schools. 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.

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

volunteer graphic

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. This is evidenced by Realtors reporting 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 lending standards tightened dramatically making mortgages harder to come by. 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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