Why Chicago families need a safety net in their high school search

Applying to high schools in Chicago can be a very stressful experience for students and families. Often, families are familiar with a few of the more well-known high schools and set their hearts on attending one of them, but the low acceptance rates mean that cannot be a reality for everyone.

What do I need to do?

Public and Private High School Search timeline

Early work

Sixth grade: Visit one or two “high interest” schools to determine requirements for admission and enter seventh grade with a goal

Seventh grade: Attend open houses, concentrate on schoolwork (standardized tests and school grades). Solidify relationships from potential recommendation providers

Sixth- to eighth-grade families should attend the Hidden Gems High School Fair in late September to help widen the net of schools for consideration.

Eighth grade

Early fall: Attend open houses, write essays and gather recommendations (if required)

Late fall: Apply by deadline

Winter: Take entrance exams (complete parochial and charter applications)

Spring: High school notifications arrive

While families can certainly aim for some schools, they should structure their search so that, in addition to those schools, their children also apply to schools where they are likely be accepted. Those schools are often known as safety nets, but in reality, they can be much more than that and can be schools where students not only learn but thrive.

“Independent school admission is usually fairly selective, it can be competitive and there’s never a ‘sure thing’ in terms of acceptance,” explains Colin Lord, director of Enrollment Management at the Latin School of Chicago.

Rachel Spiro of the Wolcott School in Chicago says she cautions families against getting their heart set on just one school during the high school admissions process because families “really don’t have that much control over the situation.”

Focusing on schools’ reputation alone may mean missing a school that would be a great fit.

“It is natural to want to be accepted into a highly selective program and limited supply can increase demand,” explains Lisa Payton of the Chicago Waldorf School.

Parents and students need to look at the bigger picture and keep an open mind throughout the high school search and selection process.

“See what’s out there,” Spiro recommends. “A family may be pleasantly surprised by the notion of something that’s not typical but a little more interesting.”

Lord echoes that sentiment. “As a family delves deeper into the process, it may discover that a school they had applied to may not be the best fit for the student after all. Casting a wide net and having options is critical.”

Not focusing in on numbers and statistics is important.

“Encourage your student to look beyond acceptance statistics to see the program that is the best fit,” says Payton. She suggests that families consider factors like mission, educational philosophy and the school’s ability to meet the individual student’s needs.

Parents need to help their student see the wide variety of options available. “The worst thing families can do is to curtail their child’s options,” says Francis W. Parker’s Admissions and Financial Aid Director, Karen Fisher.

Considering a child’s needs is particularly important when they have complex learning disabilities.

For some students, the best school for students might not even be in Chicago as is the case with Brehm Preparatory School, a private boarding school in Carbondale that serves grades sixth-12th. Though it offers rolling admissions, many students start looking at Brehm up to a year and a half ahead of time, says Charity Finley, director of communications.

At Brehm, testing isn’t the most important indicator of selection, more emphasis is put on questionnaires and the screening process to make sure of a perfect fit, she says. Its summer program, which fills up quickly, provides a good trial run for students, she says.

Parents are often unaware of the hundreds of high school options available to their children in Chicago.

“There are a lot more options than what many parents think. In their consciousness, there are four or five options, but in reality there are a lot of choices,” says Grace Sawin of ChiSchoolGPS. ChiSchoolGPS hosts a Hidden Gems High School Fair in September to help families discover some of the less popular but excellent options.

“Unfortunately, parents do not research enough into the particular schools to which their kids are applying,” Horton says. “They tend to go by reputation but they don’t look into the teaching styles of that school, the curriculum, they’ve not looked at the colleges they want their child to go to see if that particular high school will prepare them for college life.”

Applying to a wide variety of schools is more likely to give families options. “You want kids to get into several schools and have a choice of places to attend. You don’t want them to have just one letter,” says Kate Anderson of Beacon Academy in Evanston.

Having a choice is especially important when it comes to adolescents.

Anderson says kids may set their hearts on one school on one day, but it’s entirely likely that they will change their minds in a matter of days or weeks, let alone the months that span the application process. “Allow kids to go through stages,” Anderson suggests.

Many parents worry that colleges are looking only at students from specific high schools, but Spiro says that is not always true.

“Colleges are often excited by students who take more risk than go along a straight line,” she says.

Parents need to remember that there has never been a perfect school, regardless of what a school’s reputation may be.

“You will find things that you love at schools and things that don’t work as well,” says Fraser Coffeen, Middle and Upper School Division head of Roycemore School in Evanston.

If your teen does not get into his/her dream school, do not despair and keep perspective.

“It is important for parents to acknowledge, but not wallow in, any disappointment with their child. Praise the excellent efforts the child put forth in the process,” says Fisher. “Point out to the student that they should not take the process or its outcomes too personally. Schools make admission decisions for many reasons and though it feels personal to the student, it might just be that there were too many boys or girls in that particular applicant pool.”

Teens will often take their cues from their parents’ reactions. Although not the norm, school officials say that some parents yell and pester staff and others place inappropriate phone calls, none of which help their chances of admission or benefits their child. “In the end, parents who model appropriate responses for their children will feel better and so will their kids,” Fisher says.

“Wherever they go, they will still be happy and still do well provided the parent has the child’s best interest at heart,” says Michael Horton, headmaster at the British School in Chicago.

Parents can remind teens that their high school experience is not just about the school but also about the effort from the student. “High school is what you will make of it. Be at a school that allows your child to get the most out of it,” says Coffeen.

Sawin sums it up well. “Chicago is great because you can really find a school that fits your child.”

Part of Making the Grade, a special advertising education guide.

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