The Chicago Public Schools System 101

An overview of structure and school types 


Whereas most school systems are led by superintendents, CPS is led by a Chief Executive Officer, currently Barbara Byrd-Bennett and a seven member Board of Education. All of these positions are appointed by the mayor.

Student Body

As the third largest school district in the country, CPS serves 400,000 students. 45% of students are Hispanic, 40% African-American, 9% white and 6% other. Students attend one of 658 schools (478 elementary, 171 high school and nine combined).


Nearly 23,000 work for CPS as members of the Chicago Teachers Union. CPS’ relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union is historically tumultuous, leading to a number of historic strikes. The most recent strike was in 2012 when teachers walked off the job for nine days in the name of increased pay and benefits.

School System

Most schools restrict admittance to students living within a specific enrollment area. However, there are a few noteworthy exceptions to this rule:

Magnet school: Students living anywhere within city limits are eligible, but must meet rigorous academic standards. Magnet schools focus on specific areas of learning like math or literature. Two of the most notable magnets are STEM Magnet Academy )focusing on science, technology, engineering and math) and CHicago High SChool for the Arts.

Selective elementary schools: There are two types of selective admission elementary schools: regional gifted centers, which focus on a specific study area and classical schools, which take a liberal arts approach.

Charter schools: Charter schools are public schools approved by the Board of Education, but operate independently of the Board and each other--though the Board holds students to high academic standards. Charter schools are run by community organizations, universities or foundations and are therefore more flexible in terms of curriculum. Students citywide can apply, but are selected through lottery.

Selective enrollment high schools: CPS operates ten selective enrollment high schools, which admit students based on a ranking and point system:

  • 300 points for 7th grade standardized testing
  • 300 points for the entrance exam
  • 300 points for grades in 7th grade
  • Ranking: students rank their top six schools

Tier System: In an effort to combat selective schools admitting disproportionate numbers of well-off students, CPS created a tier system. The tier system is based on four socio-economic tiers and requires schools to reserve a certain number of spots for students within each tier. On average, people living in Tier 4 are better off than those living in Tier 1.

Approximately 30% of each school’s seats are filled by the highest achieving students from around the city, regardless of where they live. The remaining 70% is divided into four and admission is given to the top performing students in each tier.

Performance: In 2011 a University of Chicago consortium published a report of the past 20 years with highlights including improved graduation rates and math scores, racial gaps in achievement increasing, insufficient college preparation and lastly, the fact that publicly reported statistics of progress are not accurate.