Private or public: How to pick the school for your kids

Wondering if a private school education is right for your family? We know that picking a school can be a daunting task so we reached out to six local families to find out why private education works for them and their tips on making a decision.

Cynthia Covian-Hernandez

Family: Husband Salvador Hernandez, kids Ixchel, 11, Xoaquin, 9, Quetzaly, 5, and Itzayana, 2

Hometown: Chicago

School: Francis Xavier Warde

Why a private school works for us:

When we started our search for kindergarten for our daughter 8 years ago, we were overwhelmed with the complexity of the admissions process of the public schools. Rather than trying to deal with the selective enrollment process or public school lottery system, we decided to look into the private schools instead. We heard about FXW through friends and learned about the school’s mission, which was aligned with our goals. We love the school’s mission of providing education to students of all faiths, ethnicities and economic backgrounds. At FXW, our children have the opportunity to not only learn about their Catholic religion but (learn) about other faith traditions as well. We wanted our kids to be in an environment that not only nurtures them but also teaches them to respect and help others. At FXW, families, students, and faculty perform service projects throughout the city. Children have the opportunity to attend FXW regardless of their socio-economic status. The school awards need-based scholarships through the help of many organizations, sponsors and fundraiser events. In a private school, parents also have a greater opportunity to become more involved in their child’s education and school. FXW is a close knit community where families get to know each other and work together to accomplish the same goal of creating a safe environment for our children and creating friendships for lifetime.

One of the main reasons we selected a private school like FXW was that our children will be challenged academically. The classroom sizes at FXW are smaller, which leads to more one on one attention from the teachers and the children have a better chance of academic success.

Our best advice to other parents:

We advise families to do their research and make a list of schools. Attend open houses, look at the school’s mission; understand your child’s needs and economic status. Talk to families that have children in the public and private schools.

CC Dierdorff

Family: Husband Erich, kids Leir, 8, and Pela, 4; family dog Marigold and Midnight the hamster

Hometown: Chicago

School: Science& Arts Academy

Why a private school works for us:

We looked into private school options when we learned that public school was not working well for our family. Our son attended a highly regarded, selective enrollment school for kindergarten and first grade. It became very apparent early on that he was not in an environment that provided differentiation and allowed him to progress at a more rapid pace. By the middle of first grade, our son was having serious difficulties slowing down. He was exhibiting signs of anxiety and began losing the love of learning. Knowing we had to find a better fit for him, we sought advice from a school consultant. He suggested we specifically look at gifted schools because they offer differentiated instruction and teach to the top, whereas public schools teach to the bottom and conventional private schools teach to the middle.

After a long journey, we found Science& Arts Academy and we are incredibly happy to say it is a perfect fit. The school offers a strong curriculum, teaching methods that focus on gifted education, differentiated instruction in every subject, and accelerated learning that is built into each classroom. Not only did we find a school that taught our children (our 4-year old attends too) about social and emotional learning, kindness, and inclusivity, but we also benefit from classrooms focused on team work, profoundly talented teachers, a visionary head of school, an atmosphere geared toward nurturing every child, and an absolutely phenomenal drama, fine art, and music program. Everyday our children participate in a culture of motivation, achievement, and excellence. Both of our children are so excited about going to school because their curiosities are met and inspired each and every day.

Our best advice to other parents:

When looking into schools, first identify your child’s specific needs and then look for a school that can meet those needs. When you find a school that is potentially a good fit, ask to speak to other parents and have your child meet students from his or her grade before making a final decision.

Meg Hogan

Family: Husband John Hogan, kids Charlie, 14, 8


grade, Peter, 12, 6


grade, and Matt, 10, 4


grade; dog Chip, 3.

Hometown: Chicago

School: Northside Catholic Academy

Why a private school works for us:

I grew up going to a Catholic school and have known and lived that my entire life. The religious aspect of a school is very important to us; we wanted to raise our three boys Catholic, so we love the religion that’s part of the everyday life and instruction. It is a very respectful school. If you walk down the hall, you hear please and thank you and everyone is polite. We love the atmosphere at the school. When I went to tour for the first time, it had a wonderful feel to it. I loved the curriculum; the kids have thrived and been there since preschool. There is a wonderful community feeling and everyone is invested in the school. The fact that it’s a neighborhood school, the community is invested in the school – it does take a village, whether you’re carpooling to sports, or other activities, you really do rely on each other and you know each other so well. Northside Catholic Academy also provides an excellent education! We are a National Blue Ribbon School, and we are very proud of that.

Our best advice to other parents:

Go check out all of the schools you’re considering in person and make sure you’re comfortable with the curriculum and the atmosphere. Community is key, and that’s an intangible quality. We feel very fortunate we found the right school for our family.

Photo credit: Francesca Madden

Joy Walton

Family: Husband Larry, kids Kiley, 12, Lauren, 10, and Will, 7

Hometown: Chicago

School: St. Benedict Preparatory

Why a private school works for us:

We moved to our neighborhood 10 years ago. We chose our home because of its proximity to both strong public and private school options. As we toured the schools and spoke to other families, we quickly got a sense that a school is more than the building or curriculum – it represents an entire community. Quite frankly, school-aged children will typically spend most of their non-sleeping time at school, so it is critical to find a school community that can offer exceptional educational value and also mirrors the same values and beliefs you have within your home. We selected St. Benedict Prep because of the school’s high academic rigor, committed faculty, small class size and its strong faith-based, community-focused mission. Because St. Benedict Prep is a part of a parish church, my children know they are part of a larger Chicago faith community with great service and social justice learning opportunities every day of the week. While we acknowledge it is an additional financial burden to our family to select a private school, we believe a faith-based education leads to greater development of their faith, wisdom and spirit.

St. Benedict Prep has become an extension of our home. We are invested in our school and community, actively volunteering our time to help drive the school’s vision and community outreach, and in return St. Benedict Prep provides an incredibly personalized and values driven environment for our children to grow and thrive.

Our best advice to other parents:

A school should be an extension of your home and your family values – find a school that encourages family engagement.

Eileen Robertson Hamra

Family: Husband Michael Hamra, kids Melanie Robertson, 13, 8th grade, Brooke Robertson, 11, 7th grade, Max Robertson, 9, 4th grade; Buddy, a 2-year-old rescue Retriever mix

Hometown: Chicago

School: GEMS World Academy Chicago

Why a private school works for us:

We were looking for an academically rigorous curriculum for our three gifted children that provided a nurturing environment where our kids didn’t feel anxious and pressured. The small class size allows for our kids to really get to know all of their fellow students and faculty. We were looking for a community that felt more like a family than a bunch of acquaintances. My oldest daughter actually refers to her 8th grade class as her ‘fam’. We also looked for a school where the social and emotional skills were just as important a part of the curriculum as the academic components. Finally, it was very important to find a school with a diverse student population and a global perspective. We believe that all of those components will prepare our children for a successful and happy future no matter what they choose to do or where they choose to live. We also believe it will provide the happiest of experiences while they are attending school. People always ask me if I like GEMS and I say, ‘My kids are happy so I am happy.’

Our best advice to other parents:

I would say trust how you feel and trust your kids’ reaction/impression when you visit schools for your family. Not every school is a fit for every student, and it is important that the one you choose really is a match for your family’s wants, desires, and culture. After visiting GEMS, all three of my kids were excited to go there. That was not a small matter, as they were moving from Maryland, leaving all of their friends, and relocating to Chicago.

Elizabeth Garino

Family: Husband Ryan, kids Gabe, 6


grader, Theo, 2


grader, and Joey, 3

Hometown: Chicago

School: Sacred Heart School, Chicago

Why a private school works for us:

While it may seem overwhelming at first to research elementary schools while your child is only 2 or 3 years old, Ryan and I saw this process as an opportunity. We researched great public school options and many wonderful private schools, both Catholic and secular. We were looking for a school with strong academics, of course. We were also interested in joining a community where our children’s moral and spiritual development would be addressed as well. We actually were disinclined to send our kids to a K-12 institution because we wanted a smaller environment for them in their younger years, and then the option for them to move to a larger institution for high school.

Sacred Heart was a perfect fit for our family. The school has a stellar academic reputation and a particularly robust middle school program. SH’s eighth-graders all go on to wonderful, challenging high schools. The class sizes are very small and students receive language, art, music and physical education in regular rotation. They have access to free before- and after-school care, as well as a diverse set of afterschool and sports offerings. We love that students come from all over the city (thanks to a large bus program servicing a variety of neighborhoods), so our kids meet friends from all over. Another of the great unexpected perks about the bus system is that we still have a neighborhood feel with our Sacred Heart bus group.

While the school is a Catholic school, it is separate from the Archdiocese and is governed like any other independent private school so our kids will make their sacraments at Sacred Heart but have many classmates from outside their own religious tradition (around 30 percent of the student body is not Catholic). But most of all, Sacred Heart works for us because we feel that the school has a very strong sense of community and is truly a partner to us in developing our sons’ sense of morality and what it means to be a good friend, family member and neighbor. At the end of the day, there are a lot of schools that offer advanced academics but Sacred Heart was unique to us in that it seemed to marry those academics with the whole-child development we were looking for!

Our best advice to other parents:

Take the time to talk to anyone you can at the schools you are researching. I can’t tell you how many phone chats or coffees I had with friends or random people that friends referred me to, in order to get a sense of the community and opportunities offered by each school. Go to the schools, attend the tours, talk to parents, and ask questions! While the application process can seem overwhelming, try to remember that the choices available to us here in Chicago are really great. If you are willing to embark on this process and really think about what is important to your family, you have a chance to make a very tailored choice to what fits with your specific family and that is pretty amazing!

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