How to GoCPS for Elementary School, Part One

Are you planning to use GoCPS to apply for your child’s elementary school for next year? Well, buckle up, because it’s not easy. The process of choosing schools, applying, and enrolling your child in the Chicago Public Schools is daunting for even the most seasoned of parents.  

As a Chicago Public Schools graduate, I had dreams of my children attending CPS, too. So, for three years, even though I lived in the suburbs, I applied to CPS every year.  This year, to learn the new GoCPS application process, I spent hours on the phone with someone in district office to make sure I understood exactly how it works.

Today, I’m sharing my knowledge with you as a CPS alum, a policy analyst and a parent. I also got a little help preparing this guide from Maureen Kelleher, who is a longtime CPS-watcher and a CPS mom. She used GoCPS this year, too.

Together, we are working to provide a valuable step-by-step tool to applying for CPS schools.  In addition to this post, we will host a Facebook Live, where you can ask specific questions.

Important Disclaimer: Although I checked in with CPS as I wrote this, I am not an employee or contractor with  CPS and this guide is not approved by Chicago Public Schools. It is just me working hard to do my best to help parents in the Chicago area understand how GoCPS works.

So, get comfortable, get yourself something warm and comforting to drink, and prepare to dive into the chaos that is the application process for Chicago Public Schools. Today, we’ll explain which schools you can (and can’t) apply to using GoCPS.


Which schools can I apply to using GoCPS?


It can be harder than you might  think to know which schools are public or private, and which ones are part of the GoCPS system. Here are the different types of  CPS schools that you apply to using GoCPS:


  1. Choice schools: if you want to attend any non-test-admission school that is not your neighborhood school, you’ll apply through GoCPS and your child will not have to test.
  2. Selective Enrollment Schools (Gifted Schools and Classical Schools): to apply to any of these schools, you will have to apply through GoCPS and your child will have to take up to two tests–one for Gifted and one for Classical programs.

A word about charter schools: You cannot apply to charter elementary schools through GoCPS! Charter schools are public schools, but they have their own application processes.  Big elementary charter school networks include: Chicago International (CICS), Acero (used to be called UNO), Learn. There are also standalone charter schools like Academy of Global Citizenship and Namaste.  To apply to these schools, you have to reach out to each school directly.

Although you can’t apply to charter schools via GoCPS, you can find a list of all the charter schools in town on their website.  Here’s how:

1.Go to  

2. Click on search

3. Go to program type and click charter

4. Click the grade level


The list of all the charter schools in Chicago.  You can’t apply on this website but you can access a full list.  


These are not Chicago Public Schools and have different application processes:


  1. Parochial Schools (Hint: If it says “St” it isn’t a CPS school!)
  2. Independent, or private, non-religious schools.  (If you have to pay to apply, that’s your clue it is not a public school.)

(For the sake of time, we will NOT be explaining how to apply to non-CPS schools.)


Quick Quiz:

Which of the following schools can’t be applied to through GoCPS?

    1. LaSalle Language Academy
    2. Skinner West Elementary
    3. Suder Elementary School
    4. Acero Brighton Park Elementary School

The answer is D. This is not the same as the CPS elementary school, Brighton Park Elementary, which is CPS and is on GoCPS! See how hard it is to tell what’s what?

*ShaRhonda tip- If the school isn’t listed on this CPS school list then it is NOT in CPS.  And this list includes charter schools that you have apply to individually.

What are the different kinds of schools in CPS?

Well, I am glad you asked.  Unfortunately, the answer is unnecessarily long and complicated.  Here are our simplified answers:

Neighborhood School Every child who lives in Chicago, regardless of immigration status, is legally entitled to a free and public education.  In Chicago, school zones are drawn into every neighborhood. Every family in Chicago is zoned into one public elementary school and one public high school–those are your neighborhood schools. You don’t have to test in, you don’t have to do an application. All you have to do is show up and register with proof of address (lease, utility bill, etc.).

ShaRhonda tip: Click here and enter your address and zip code to find out your neighborhood school.  Also, DO NOT TRUST LANDLORDS OR REAL ESTATE AGENTS WHO TELL YOU WHAT THE NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOLS ARE!  Many devastated new homeowners have found out the hard way, that their neighborhood school is not what the real estate agent told them when they were purchasing a home.  

Choice Schools Choice schools include both magnet schools and schools that have neighborhood boundaries but aren’t your neighborhood school. Magnet schools specialize in subject areas, such as math and science, fine arts, world language, or humanities. Sometimes they specialize in an approach, like Montessori (like Suder and Drummond.) Your child won’t need to take a test to apply to choice schools.

Any Chicago student can apply to any CPS magnet school, regardless of where they live in the city.  If you don’t live in Chicago, you can still apply, but need to live in Chicago by June 1, 2019. You’ll use the GoCPS application. Your schools will be listed in 1-2-3 order on the application, but there is no preference involved in admissions. You’ll be admitted or wait-listed randomly for each school.

You should definitely check out all magnet schools that look interesting to you and your child.  However,  acceptance into a magnet school is done by lottery. So, ideally, it’s totally random.  So don’t get your heart set on any specific school, because you, the parent, have little control over whether or not your child will be accepted.  To me, magnet schools are like “scratch-off lottery tickets” of CPS. It is unlikely that you will win, but you have a better chance getting your child into a magnet school (scratch-offs) than into a selective enrollment school (which is like winning MegaMillions).

Schools outside your neighborhood may have great programs and not be considered formal magnet schools. If you want to apply to one, use the Choice section of the GoCPS application.

Selective Enrollment Schools There are two kinds: gifted and classical. Each kind has its own test. If you want to apply to both kinds of schools, your child will have to take both kinds of tests. Make sure you sign your child up for the tests you want! This can be very confusing.

To apply for selective enrollment schools, you’ll use the GoCPS application. You will have to rank your choices in order of preference. You’ll also have to register for testing.  We’ll talk more about this in Part Two.

Getting accepted to selective enrollment schools  is complicated. First, your child has to do well enough on the entrance test to be eligible (achieve the cutoff score). Then your child will be matched with one of the schools you ranked on the application, using a computerized matching system. The system is supposed to work like the matching system that places medical school residents with hospitals. The most important thing to know about the system is: put your real first choice first!

And nope, I am not joking. That is the process to enter a selective enrollment elementary school in CPS. We hear it is easier to get into Harvard than it is to get into a selective enrollment school. I’ll wait while you scream, cry, drink or kick something. Did you get your angries out?  Okay, back to the process.

 What schools should I choose for my child?  

This is a super-personal decision.  However, here are some of our thoughts about the pros and cons of each type of school: selective enrollment,  choice schools, especially magnets, and your own neighborhood school.

Selective Enrollment Pros: These are considered the “Ivy League” of CPS.  Four of them made Chicago Magazine’s 2018 list of the top public schools in the city. Many people think that if your child gets accepted into a selective enrollment school, especially one of those top-ranked schools, then you should automatically choose that school. (My friend Maureen knows parents who have had children at Keller, NTA and Skinner West who have had good experiences with their kids at those schools.)  

Selective Enrollment Cons: However, there are downsides. I know folks whose children were accepted to Selective Enrollment schools, who then went either  “SE crazy” or got “SE divorced.” But the most common experience I know of among families who tried selective enrollment schools  is: “SE inspired our move to the suburbs.” Here are some reasons for why these things happen:

  • Transportation: the schools are often located far from where families live.  Families often undertake commutes of an hour or more each morning and another hour-plus in the afternoon.
  • Advanced Curriculum = More Homework- A common complaint of parents of children at selective enrollment schools is that they assign copious amounts of homework.  When Maureen’s daughter started kindergarten she was informed by a gifted center that her child could expect 45 minutes to an hour of daily homework in kindergarten. (She chose not to accept the offer and did not put her child in any selective enrollment school.)  So, in addition to a long daily commute, families also add lots of homework time. Now you see why people go “SE crazy” or get “SE divorced.” Everyone is sleep-deprived!
  • Standardized Tests – In both CPS school ratings and lists like the one in Chicago Magazine, standardized test scores are the main basis of the rankings. So, as I hear from friends in some of these schools, at least some selective enrollment schools drill on test material, sometimes at the expense of experiences like art, music and sports. (Maureen says that isn’t the experience she’s aware of from her friends with kids in some selective enrollment schools, so “your mileage may vary” on this point.)  
  • No Sibling Preference– For those families with more than one child, it is important to know that selective enrollment schools do not have sibling preference.  Which means, if you are lucky enough to win the CPS selective enrollment lottery for one child, that means absolutely nothing for your other children.  Each child will have to complete the entire process on their own and you, the parent, will pray you hit the CPS Mega Millions: enrollment of both children into the same selective enrollment school.  

Aha! We all see it now! If the first three problems didn’t break you, number 4 will trigger the “SE crazy” or “SE divorce” or “SE move to the suburbs.”  This is just a ShaRhonda observation based on conversations with my friends.


Choice (Magnet) Pros: Mostly, I’m talking about magnet schools here. If you’re choosing a school that’s not your own neighborhood school, you probably know what makes it special and why you want to go there. So here are my thoughts about magnet schools, especially since I am a graduate of a magnet elementary school in CPS. First, the good points.

  • No testing to attend magnet schools!  Also, many of the Magnet Schools are ranked high nationally in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation.  Further, Magnet Schools have specific focuses like language arts, math and sciences, so they are better fit for parents who have children who are interested in those specific areas.  
  • Sibling preference:  Magnet schools do provide sibling preferences.  So if you have more than one child, you other children get priority for enrollment!  
  • Specialized focus. When your child is really interested in fine arts, or science, or learning a new language, going to a magnet school that supports their interest is great! (And can save you a lot of money on after-school and summer programs in their area of interest, too.)
  • Diversity. I went to a Magnet School and had a wonderfully diverse group of friends, racially, ethnic, and economically.  Because of the randomness of the attendance, it truly draws from students are all over the city.


Choice (Magnet) Cons:

  • No connection to your neighborhood.  Because most of the students who attend magnet schools, live in other communities, it is hard to form a community because after school everyone disperses into their home communities.  I envied students who walked to and from school with their neighbors and friends. Although you will have get to know people from all over Chicago, the location of students, make “play dates” difficult to plan.
  • Specialized focus: If you have a child who wants to be an artist, going to a magnet fine arts school is great.  However, if your child is in a magnet that doesn’t fit their interests, it can be hard for them to develop their true interests. For example, if your child,  is really interested in world history or engineering, and attends a magnet fine arts school, they may not have as many opportunities to engage with those other areas. While all schools cover the four core subjects to greater or lesser degrees, magnet schools offer “specials” classes in the area of focus and develop school activities around them.
  • Specialized focus: I know. I wrote it twice. Here’s another downside–how serious magnet schools are about their specialty varies.  Sometimes you will enroll your child into a “fine art” Magnet school, and are disappointed that there is no real “fine art” focus.   It really is a toss-up, with no way to really predict how committed to the “magnet theme” the school will be.


Neighborhood School Pros:

  • Location, location, location! It is in your neighborhood!  Yes to walking to school! Yes to no commute time!
  • No lottery, no testing.  You just go to the school and register, and like magic, voila, your child or children are enrolled in school.
  • Community-building. At your neighborhood school, there are incredible opportunities to get involved in the school and have the school involved in the community.  My youngest daughter goes to our neighborhood public school, and every year, she interacts with community leaders, public servants, and police officers.  She has the opportunity to know the people in our school and community and they have the opportunity to know her.


Neighborhood School Cons:

  • Varying quality. Neighborhood schools ranking varies greatly from school to school.  Once you know your neighborhood school’s name, you can click here to see how it ranks in the CPS accountability system.
  • Uncertain future. If you are Black or Brown parent, I want you to know that CPS has been on a racist mission to close as many neighborhood schools in Black and Brown neighborhood schools.  So, you may enroll your child in your neighborhood school, be on the local school council, and be working to create quality programs for your students, and CPS will decide to close your school and move your child to another school where you may not have as much input. (quick plug, read this book by CPS alum, Harvard Education graduate, and bad ass poet, University of Chicago Professor Eve Ewing, “Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side.”
  • Racial segregation.  Chicago is a notoriously segregated city.  So neighborhood schools are reflective of their neighborhoods, which are overwhelmingly racially segregated.  



Whew. Now that you know all about CPS schools, you have homework.  

Your goal is to identify at least 10 and up to 20 schools that you would be interested in for your child.  

I suggest five selective enrollment schools and 10-15 magnet or choice schools. Also, please find the name of your neighborhood school and find out 3 things that you like about the school and any concerns you have.  

Once you’ve done this, you’ll be ready for Part Two of our guide: how to fill out the GoCPS application. Come back Friday to learn more!


Photo credit: Courtesy Chicago Public Schools via Facebook

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ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson

ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson is the mother of two free-spirited, strong-willed girls and has a husband who should be appointed a saint for co-existing in the madness that is their life. She writes on politics, education, current events and social justice. She is also a taco enthusiast, a proud member of the Bey-hive, and truly believes that she will be receiving her letter from Hogwarts any day now. Find her on Twitter at @S_KnottDawson.