6 ways to take the stress out of the high school selection process

Finding the right high school can be a cause of concern for Chicago parents, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Grace Sawin, founder of Chicago School GPS, shares some tips on how to take the stress out of the process of finding the best place for your child.

Knowledge is power

We fear the unknown, so the more you know about finding a school, the less fear you and your kids will have. Learning about how the high school selection process works and the wide variety of high schools often brings families peace of mind.

The Hidden Gems Chicago High School Fair Sept. 29 features about three dozen high schools in and around Chicago with a variety of different styles. Both Chicago public high schools and private schools participate in the fair, which is a good place for families to begin their search.

Sawin says that, after attending, parents will understand that there are many choices and a fit for every student. For those ready to dive in deeper, it’s a great way to get an insight into a large number of schools in a short amount of time.

“Parents are pleasantly surprised when they see that there are multiple places where their kids could be happy,” Sawin says.

Spread your net wide

Once a student discovers schools that would be a good fit, they should strongly consider applying to a number of them. While students can only receive two offers from CPS, Sawin recommends submitting many more applications. Doing so “alleviates the worry that you won’t get in anywhere,” says Sawin. 

She also notes that there can be several different pathways into one school. For example, there are several different ways to gain admission to Lincoln Park High School, including by audition, the IB program and the double honors program. “That gives you three bites of the apple,” she says.

Start early

“Starting early helps destress the process,” Sawin says. 

The best time to begin learning about the process is when a student reaches sixth grade, she says. Visit one or two “high interest” schools to determine requirements and enter seventh grade with a goal. In seventh grade, attend high school open houses, not just for the “high interest” schools, but other possible academic and social fits.

Families are often surprised to learn that CPS asks students to rank their lottery-based selections. Starting early can help give families time “to see schools and formulate the opinions needed to rank those options.”

Do your own research

Middle school parents can attest to the many conversations they have about high school. Everyone has an opinion, but there is no substitute for doing your own research.

Keep in mind that schools are organic and can change, even in a few years. “A lot of people go off old information. Get up-to-date information and recognize that sometimes the quality of education is there, but people haven’t heard about it,” Sawin says. 

Also, she adds, one student’s experience is not always indicative of what your child’s experience would be. Don’t rely on information from others. Talking to officials from schools and seeing them firsthand is the best way to feel comfortable with your decisions. 

Social shifts are less scary than they seem

Leaving an established social network and starting at a new school can be a source of stress for some kids and parents. Sawin notes that this is typically one of the worries that dissipates the fastest for parents, and it’s often a non-issue one month into the school year.

She cautions against permitting students to choose a high school based on where their friends are going. Even if they are in the same school, it’s possible that they will never have a class together.

“Often, teens are ready for a new set of faces. Even neighborhood high schools draw a bigger swath of students and it can be refreshing,” Sawin says.

Shift your perspective

Even if your middle schooler doesn’t want to admit it, they pay attention to their parents. Sawin says parental attitude about the high school selection process is very important and sets the tone for the entire family. If you’re not stressed about it, chances are your child won’t be, either.

“Instead of dreading the process, see it as an opportunity,” she says.  


Hidden Gems High School Fair

1-4 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 29

De Le Salle Institute High School

3434 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago

Admission: $15/family in advance, $25/family at the door

The annual event includes seminars and workshops for parents and students, including school presentations, the ins and outs of the high school admissions process and peer-to-peer time with current high school students. Find more information at chischoolgps.com.

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This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Chicago Parent. Read the rest of the issue.

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