Chicago Public Schools – this is how School Placement Works.

Chicago Public Schools have seen a remarkable increase in school quality, and you can read about it on an earlier post. The short of it is this: Chicago is a City where you can confidently send your children to a public school, but the process by which your child gets placed at a school can be hard to understand for a newcomer. Here is a quick primer on how the CPS school placement system works:

Pre-K: the good news is Mayor Rahm Emmanuel (who is not running for reelection) has a plan in place for every 4-year-old throughout the City of Chicago to have access to free full-day preK by 2021. As of the drafting of this blog post (early January, 2019) there is preference given to low income families for preK spots, and most free preK programs are not full day.

For people that don’t qualify as low income, preK spots are decided through an application process and you can find more information about programs in your area at this link. Many families end up paying for preK in Chicago at the moment.

Kindergarten: all students who are 5 years old by September 1st of the current school year are eligible to enroll in Kindergarten.

child instruction

Grade school (K-8th Grade): There are several types of pubic grade schools in Chicago.  They important ones to know are Neighborhood, Charter, Magnet Cluster, Magnet, and Selective Enrollment.

  • A Neighborhood School has attendance boundaries and any child who lives in the attendance boundaries of the school is guaranteed admittance to that school.
  • Charter schools do not have attendance boundaries and accept children based on a lottery system, with preference to both those who live close to the school and sometimes children with siblings at the school. There are 54 Charter schools in Chicago at the moment and they all have different curriculum and are independent from the Board of Education and each other.
  • Magnet Cluster schools not only have a neighborhood boundary, but also accept students through an application process from other parts of the city.  All students at a Magnet Cluster school are part of the same program with access to the same teachers and courses, and a Magnet Cluster school focuses on one of four subject areas: fine and performing arts, world language, technology, or International Baccalaureate Primary or Middle Years.
  • A Magnet School does not have attendance boundaries.  Students are accepted from all over the city based on a lottery system.  The lottery system is a blog post in and of itself, but the gist is the student applies online and lists 20 schools for which they want to enter the lottery, and the student will either get accepted or waitlisted at each school. Waitlists often go very deep, and it is common for parents to get a call the day before classes start with news that a spot opened up at a desirable school. Parents who live in the attendance boundaries of an acceptable neighborhood schools have a much different experience than parents that don’t: these parents rest assured knowing if the lottery doesn’t work out, they have a great fallback option. This can save a couple years of worrying: “where will my child end up going to school?”.
  • Selective Enrollment schools are generally for high performers and admittance is based on an application process that includes a test of the students abilities. Sometimes, selective enrollment schools will be housed inside a neighborhood school, but the selective enrollment children have different teachers and classes. Its almost like two schools under one roof with little interaction between the neighborhood kids and the selective enrollment (aka “options”) children.


Highschool (9th-12th)

The structure is similar to the elementary schools.

  • Neighborhood: just like grade schools, all Chicago Neighborhood High Schools have attendance boundaries and children that live within the boundary are guaranteed admittance at the school.
  • Magnet Schools do not have attendance boundaries with few exceptions. Unlike the magnet elementary school system where any child can enter the lottery, students must have a satisfactory score on the NWEA MAP test in order to enter the magnet high school lottery.
  • Selective Enrollment schools have an application process and admittance is based on competitive scores on the entrance exam, among other important factors like the socio economic status of your neighborhood (this is the tier system, where areas that have low incomes are given priority).  The Selective Enrollment exam is different and more challenging that the NWEA MAP testing.

That is the system in a nutshell.  There are all kinds of schools not mentioned here like trade schools, schools for diverse learners, and even military schools, but this post should help paint a picture of what most parents go through when it comes to public school placement in Chicago. There are also many private school options throughout Chicago that aren’t mentioned here.

Many parents intentionally move into the attendance boundaries of good neighborhood schools, and here is a tool that can help families do this by listing the top 30 schools that have homes for sale that match their requirements.

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