The North Shore is famed for its outstanding public schools…but theyre not for everyone. Joy DuPuis guides prospective parents through the sometimes daunting, always interesting, private-school admissions process.
Photograph by Jim Prisching
"What if they like our child but not us?” my husband joked to me as we waited in the Admissions Office of the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago. We were relocating to the Chicago area from California, and school research had become my day job. So there we were, two months later, hoping to be chosen for what turned out to be one available fourth-grade spot at the school.
“Is this your first time applying to Parker?” a petite woman asked me. I glanced up from my lap, hands clasped. She continued, “It’s our third.”
As it turned out, our time with the admissions director was a pleasant hour and a half talking about ourselves—usually I would enjoy that, but on that day I was trying to recall all the social service projects we’d participated in. And the admissions director? On another day, I would have wanted to have lunch with her. And we didn’t get the one spot either. Instead, we ended up on the North Shore, living in Evanston, driving to North Shore Country Day in Winnetka. And, amazingly, the application process was completed without needing to carry a small bottle of Rescue Remedy in my pocket.
Admittedly, there’s no such stress about starting public school, and most people move to the North Shore because of its great public school system. However, sometimes parents are looking for something that only a private school can offer, like a continuous K–12 program, religious education, a single-sex environment, or a language immersion (other than Spanish). Or maybe what appeals is a school that starts even earlier than preschool, like Lake Forest Country Day School, which has a curriculum for students starting at age 2.
Personally, when I sent my daughter to Montessori school for four years, it was the educational philosophy that appealed to me. Similarly, Amy Amoroso chose Chicago Waldorf School because she liked the fact that her daughters would have the same teachers for four years. “It felt like an extended family,” she recalls now.
Chicago certainly is a hotbed for progressive education, which is not surprising since both Francis W. Parker and Clara Belle Baker have schools in the city that are named after them. Here on the North Shore, Baker Demonstration School values learning by doing. Their educational philosophy follows in the footsteps of John Dewey’s quote, “Education is life itself.” Loring Strudwick, Director of Admissions at Lake Forest Academy, points out that 75 percent of her school’s teachers live on the campus, which serves half boarding, half day schoolers. “We never stop teaching. Students come over to my house. It’s more than just classroom teaching, it’s community teaching.”
Another reason parents choose to go private is the opportunity to put their children in single-sex schools. Gender differentiation in education is gaining real momentum with parents and educators alike, particularly with the recent popularity of Leonard Sax’s books, Girls on the Edge and Boys Adrift. Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, which admits girls starting their freshman year of high school, is committed to girls’ education, in which they are a national leader. In the city, the Sacred Heart schools are leading the single-sex charge, and North Shore parents of younger students are following. For parent Pam Kendall, an all-girl environment was an important factor in her decision-making, which is how she came to SHS. The schools are really a global school—there are 200 schools worldwide, and Pam’s daughter has already done an exchange with a Sacred Heart school in Vienna.
Imy Wax, a psychotherapist and educational consultant out of Northbrook, shed some light on a few other reasons North Shore families choose to go private. According to Imy, “Family history plays a role in why parents might choose a day school.” If Dad and Granddad went, why not you?
“Students may also have a greater opportunity to do something they wouldn’t be able to do in a large public school, like play sports, because you don’t have to be better than good to make the team. ‘Public’ may mean more challenges, but it also means more diversity. Screening students for private schools to make sure they will be in sync with the way the classrooms are designed makes for classes with little disturbance, albeit a homogenous group. We all learn differently, and when the classrooms are larger, there is less opportunity to be known.”
As for the million dollar question—learning challenges—will private schools work with children requiring accommodations? “If they (the students) show a gift to be able to compensate and a desire to work hard, and have the personality to overcome, they will make accommodations,” Imy explains. “Stanford has many students who are dyslexic.”
Service learning is a large component of many private schools, as evidenced in school mottos, such as North Shore Country Day School’s “Live and Serve,” Baker Demonstration’s “Love to Learn. Cherish the Journey. Serve the World,” and the Jesuit school Loyola Academy, which is tasked to carry out the mission of St. Ignatius. Many private schools also have service-learning requirements to graduate.
Finding the right school and fit for your child and family dynamic can be an adventure, if you let it be. There are so many private choices on the North Shore and in Chicago: progressive, religious, college-prep, Montessori, Waldorf, French, boarding school, and gifted. It’s an education just going on the tours. They all have their specialties; finding the right fit just depends on what you’re looking for and, how you feel when you’re at the school. Think gut feeling and intuition.
Once you have decided to go private, and identified a few schools to apply to, don’t buy into the application hype. It can be an exhausting amount of paperwork, true, but the school just wants to make sure your child is a good fit for them and vice versa. Schools like Latin, Chicago Lab, and Parker do have an extensive interview process, but the bottom line is you and your child will end up where you are meant to be, so let the adventure begin (and make sure your young child uses the bathroom before their “playdate” and observation from another room).
Speaking of schools with a wait list, a couple in Chicago who applied to Parker for JK felt that, “The interviewing process is a mutual relationship. Parker interviews potential families, while families are equally interviewing Parker to make sure it’s the right fit for everyone. The school brings this mutual relationship up as their positioning to families, and when you go through the interview process, you certainly see this is true.”
Elizabeth Simutis, Director of Admissions at East Lake Academy in Lake Forest, recommends asking yourself, “What kind of family and parents are you looking to be around, for eight years? And will my child thrive here? Be honest about your needs and what you are searching for.”
Similarly, Nancy Syburg, Director of Admissions at Chiaravalle Montessori School, says that many parents arrive at the school already educated about Montessori and with lists of questions, which, she says, is great. “But take an opportunity to be in the building and classroom, and take a step back and allow yourself the experience.” Nancy also touched on the intuitive sense we all have for knowing what’s best for our child and trusting in it.
Parent Erin Moore says that St. Athanasius in Evanston was on her radar because everyone she spoke with was exuberant in their praise about the Catholic school. “St. A’s welcomes all; we’re not Catholic, but what attracted me besides the academics, were the values and that my children will learn that there is something out there bigger than them.” And the admissions process was straightforward; they made it easy. When asked if Erin had any advice for parents starting the school search, she said to trust your own intuition, “Because the feeling you get when you walk in the door is authentic. And there is a fit for everyone.” And the reason her younger daughter is at the French Institute of the North Shore? Erin laughs, “That’s for me! But really, the best time to learn a language is when you’re young.”
Winnetka parent Martha Kirtley remembers walking into North Shore Country Day School and thinking, “This is where I would like to have my girls go.”
She adds, “I liked all the schools, but this is the one I had the gut feeling for. It was the overall impression—it was a small environment with a special aura.”
For myself, I had an instant rapport with Diane Olson, Lower School Admissions Associate at North Shore. There was a spirit of discovery in the quotes on the wall: “Do your own dance, sing your own song.”
Mary Dolan chose Pope John XXIII School in Evanston partly because of the small class sizes, but what she really liked was the diversity. “They do a great job, socio-economically, racially, and culturally, and have managed to have a really nice sense of community.” Principal Rosalie Musiala echoes this feeling.
Mary agrees with Erin’s admissions advice. “Trust your gut, if it doesn’t feel right, even if you can’t put your finger on why, then it’s probably not the right place for you. There’s a downside everywhere. Figure out what matters to you and accept the rest.”
Where were you two a few years ago?
For Kim Rafilson, the choice was easy. She wanted her kids to be in school in their own neighborhood, and she was drawn to the three-dimensional learning that the renowned Chiaravalle Montessori offered. Meanwhile, parent George Gaines felt that the progressive education he was searching for came through in what he observed on his tour of Baker Demonstration School in Wilmette. He could see his child fitting into the nurturing environment. “Both the kids and teachers clearly were happy to be there and were highly engaged.”
Interestingly, but not surprisingly here on the North Shore, I have heard many similar remarks from people in the community about their local public schools. Education is valued, and it’s reflected in the many choices on the North Shore.
And as for me, I have been tempted to go public—she could walk to school, she would have friends in the neighborhood—but, we are settled and she is happy. For me, my search is over. After four schools in seven years, I have found the school for our daughter. And perhaps the one piece of advice I have, as an ex-school hopper, would be to take into consideration the possible perceived failure a student might feel if they do not get into their school of choice, especially if they are aware of how important their acceptance is to you. Keep it light. Maintain the sense of “we’re looking for what’s right for you.” Our daughter desperately wanted to go to Parker. She ran out from her shadow day, eyes shining, declaring, “This is where I want to go! The girls hugged me good-bye and said they hoped I was coming!” Now, at her back-to-school picnic at North Shore Country Day, I am happy to say that this image is just a memory. As I watched her friends open their arms to each other, a newly transferred parent from Highland Park remarked, “Wow! I’ve never seen this kind of welcome.” And that, really, is what it’s all about.