The Learner Blog

The Learner Blog

Helping Chicago Students Navigate the High School Application Process

Lock and Key Educational Services

Getting into high school in Chicago is no easy task. For many parents and students who want to get into one of CPS’s 11 selective enrollment high schools, navigating the seemingly endless maze of school visits, application deadlines, standardized test deadlines and more can feel like you’re hacking your way through the jungle without a map.

And if you start considering sending your child to a Catholic school or private school, the process can become even more overwhelming.

That’s why Educational Endeavors has recently partnered with Lock & Key Educational Services to help families determine which high schools to apply to and walk them through the application maze every step of the way.

Lock and Key was founded by Chrissy Lewis and Kandyce Woods, who both previously worked with High Jump, an academic enrichment program that helped high-achieving, low-income 7th and 8th graders get into good high schools. Now, with Lock and Key, Lewis and Woods’ mission is to expose students and parents to all of the possible choices they have in high schools and help students find the right school for them.

Lewis says when she was working as a CPS guidance counselor she would ask students which high school they wanted to go to, they’d all say the same schools: Walter Payton, Jones College Prep and North Side College Prep. But many students didn’t realize how competitive it is to get into those schools.

According to an article on, about 13,000 students applied for just 3,600 spots in selective enrollment high schools in 2015. And for this school year, students from the highest income areas had an average score of 896 out of 900 possible points to get into Payton, while students from the lowest income areas had an average of 838 points.

The 900 points are based on your 7th grade grades in academic classes, your score on your NWEA MAP test (taken in the spring of 7th grade for public school students and the fall of 8th grade for private school students), as well as your score on the Selective Enrollment High School Entrance Exam (taken from October through February of 8th grade).

Students are also ranked by tiers, with preference going to students from lower income and racially diverse areas. That means students in high-income areas have to have straight As and almost perfect scores on both tests to get into the most competitive schools.

“A lot of kids don’t know how detrimental their 7th grade grades can be,” Lewis says.

At every initial consultation, Lewis and Woods sit down with the parents and the student and review their grades and test scores to determine where they have the best chance of getting in. But they also take the time to talk to the students about what they are looking for in a high school to find the best fit.

“There is no best high school,” Woods says. “There’s the best high school for you.”

Lewis says the initial consultation with families is always very laid back and relaxed, and they make sure to spend time with the students one-on-one so they are free to talk about their own wants and needs, away from their parents.

For example, some students prefer a smaller school environment, and others are looking for schools with great theater programs, basketball teams or science programs.

After the initial consultation, Woods and Lewis come back with their recommendations of the best schools to apply to, and they encourage families to consider looking at selective enrollment high schools, private schools, charter schools, parochial schools or boarding schools, too, which may be a good option for some families.

“We really want to expose families to all of the choices they have,” Lewis says.

They even walk families through the process of applying for scholarships and financial aid if needed. “Boarding schools are a very good option because a lot of times they have money to give away for scholarships,” Woods says.

Once they choose which schools they want to consider, Woods and Lewis map out a calendar, showing them when they can attend open houses, when they need to take certain standardized tests and more. They will also recommend that they take additional test prep classes or writing classes to boost their chances of getting in.

In addition, Woods and Lewis can help students prepare for interviews, which they may need to get into certain private schools and boarding schools.

“In many cases, this might be your child’s first experience with interviewing,” Woods and Lewis write on their website. “The interview preparation session… will make your child more comfortable with interviewing, giving your child the confidence that is vital in making a stellar first impression during their high school interview.”

The best advice that Lewis has for parents who are worried about where their child will go to high school is to start early. “The earlier the better,” she says. “I would love to have the initial conversation at the beginning of 7th grade.”



10 Tips For Doing Well on High School Entrance Exams

standardized tests

There is almost nothing as stressful as taking a standardized test – especially one that may determine which school you attend for the next four years. And if you’re an 8th grader in Chicago, a lot is riding on how you score on your standardized high school entrance exams.

Although it’s impossible to know exactly what questions you’ll face when taking these tests, luckily there are a few tried-and-true strategies you can follow to improve your scores and reach your potential.

Here are a couple of the tips that we’ll be discussing in our upcoming Ultimate 8th Grade Test Prep workshops, starting Sept. 9 and 12, which prepare Chicago-area 8th graders who are about to take the NWEA MAP & SEHS (for CPS selective enrollment high schools), HSPT (for Catholic high schools), ISEE (for private high schools) and SSAT (for boarding schools).

  1. Guess on questions you don’t know & come back to them later (except on the NWEA MAP)
    One of the basic rules of doing well on standardized tests is answering the questions you know first. If a question looks too challenging, skip it. The questions are all worth the same number of points, so don’t spend your time wrestling with a question when you could be spending time on other questions you know. If you feel like you’ve spent too much time on a certain question, you probably have. Make an educated guess, circle the question so you can come back to it later, and then move on.
  2. Read the questions & answer choices carefully
    Don’t get something wrong just because you read a question wrong or went too fast. Make sure to read the questions all the way so you don’t get tricked. In reading comprehension questions, read the questions and answer choices even more carefully than the passages. Look out for words like “except,” “all but,” or “not,” which greatly affect which answer you should choose. In vocabulary questions, don’t let your brain trick you into thinking it’s a familiar word when it’s actually something different (for example: hollowed vs. hallowed).
  3. Look at ALL the answers before deciding on the BEST answer
    One trap that students fall into is settling on the first good choice they see without even reading all of the options. If there doesn’t seem to be a perfect choice, go with the best choice or, in math, rework the problem until you get a precise answer.
  4. Use process of elimination
    All the correct answers are there, you just have to pick the right one. That’s why it’s often easier to eliminate the silly options first and focus on what is left. This is especially useful in vocabulary sections where the sentence completion has more than one blank to be filled in. And in reading comprehension questions, eliminate the following types of answers:

    • Extremes (these usually have words like “always” or “never”).
    • Duplicates; if two of the answer choices are “happy” and “joyful,” it would be pretty tough to choose between them, so eliminate both.
    • Look for keywords in the answer choices that get to the heart of what that answer is about. Then determine if that key idea is mentioned or implied in the passage. If not, eliminate it.
  5. Double-check before moving on
    The ten seconds you spend double-checking could make a huge difference in where you end up going to high school and spending the next four years of your life, so train yourself to be 100% sure. For math questions, check by plugging in your solution to see that it works or by asking yourself if your answer makes sense. (For example, did you come up with a small decimal when the answer should be a huge number? If so, recalculate.)
  6. For math questions, solve in the easiest way for you
    Ever heard the expression, “There are lots of ways to skin a cat”? Well, there are lots of ways to approach a math problem, too. Solve in the easiest way for you:

    • Back-solve (solve in reverse by plugging in answer choices). This may be the slowest approach, but on the MAP test, time isn’t an issue. So, try it!
    • Estimate.
    • Draw a picture to visualize what the problem is talking about.
    • Write an equation.
  7. For reading comprehension questions, read the entire passage
    Don’t just skim! Make sure you focus on the main ideas of the passage, what the author’s purpose and tone is, and what the piece is really about. When you’re done you should be able to explain the passage in “kitchen logic,” ie, how you would describe what you’ve read when sitting around the kitchen table.
  8. In vocabulary questions, look for clues in the words
    One trick to deciphering vocabulary words is to look for clues, such as smaller known words within the longer unknown word. Example: “prophetic” has the word “prophet” in it. Or see if you can you identify familiar prefixes and suffixes, and use that meaning to narrow down your choices.
  9. Be well rested and fed on test day
    When you’re taking your high school entrance exams, you want your brain to be functioning at its best. To do that, make sure you have had a good night’s sleep and eaten a nutritious breakfast. Then during the test, keep yourself alert with plenty of water and snacks (if allowed in the room).
  10. Visualize success
    Don’t panic! Just do your best. Practice visualizing success and finding a way to block out all distractions before you start each question. Say an encouraging mantra or find another way to remind yourself to stay positive and focused.

Interested in learning more test-taking strategies? Sign up for our Ultimate 8th Grade Test Prep Workshops, starting Sept. 9 or 12!


How Breaking Your Cell Phone Addiction Can Help Your Grades

cell phones

We all know that cell phones can make life a lot easier, right? But did you know that they may actually be hurting your life and your school work more than you think?

Recently, scientists have begun studying how cell phones, and social media in particular, impact our lives, and studies have shown that they can cause everything from shorter attention spans to increased levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

One of the biggest problems, it seems, is that cell phones and social media give us an illusion of feeling like we’re more connected to each other. We can text our friends day or night, communicate instantly with them over SnapChat and follow their lives through their Instagram feeds. But unfortunately, being connected in a virtual world isn’t the same as being connected in real life. In fact, the more time we spend alone with our phones and the less time we spend with other people in person, the more depressed we become. Does that sound like something your parents would say? Well, it’s actually true and studies are proving it.

The Monitoring the Future survey, which is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has been asking teens questions about their lives since 1975, and recently, the data has shown that teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy than those who spend time doing in-person activities.

In addition, all the time you spend on SnapChat or Instagram is certainly making it harder to keep your grades up and finish all your schoolwork. Those poor grades you’re getting won’t lift your mood one bit. It’s a downward spiral and it’s clear to see that the so-called smartphone may actually be making you perform in not-so-smart ways.

Tired of this blog already? Not surprising. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, children and teens who use a media device right before bed are more likely to sleep less than they should, more likely to sleep poorly and more than twice as likely to be sleepy during the day.

Sleep experts warn that the blue light emitted by cell phone screens decreases our body’s production of melatonin, which controls our circadian rhythm, making it harder to fall asleep. On top of that, many students report going to sleep with their cell phones either on their pillow or just next to their bed, buzzing throughout the night when they get texts or emails.

And, of course, not getting enough sleep makes it harder to concentrate at school or focus on your homework, which leads to poorer performance in the classroom.

Putting Down the Cell Phone

With all of the negative effects of cell phones, it makes sense that we should limit our time on them. But if reading that sentence makes you shudder, you’re not alone. Many of us are so addicted to our phones that separating ourselves from them feels unthinkable. In fact, so many people experience nomophobia, or fear of being without their mobile device, that researchers at Iowa State University have devised a test to measure the phenomenon.

But that’s all the more reason to limit our cell phone screen time; it can do wonders for our self-esteem and mental health and should lead to better grades as well.

How to Curb Your Cell Phone Addiction

Here are a few suggestions for ways to limit your cell phone use and kick your smartphone addiction.

  1. Try a Digital Detox
    Not convinced that your cell phone habit is actually an addiction? We challenge you to try a digital detox – 24 hours of not checking your cell phone at all. We promise you it’s going to be harder than it sounds, but you’ll also be amazed by how much freedom you’ll feel when you are forced to be more present to what is going on around you.
  2. Don’t Use Your Phone As an Alarm Clock
    If a phone-free day sounds too difficult, try taking smaller baby steps to reduce your habit. One way is to stop using your phone as an alarm clock, so you won’t be tempted to bring your phone to bed with you or see it the first thing when you wake up.
  3. Put Your Phone on Airplane Mode
    Need to focus on your homework? Avoid the constant distractions of getting texts and notifications by switching your phone onto airplane mode for a solid hour. After working for an hour, give yourself permission to check your phone. If you can, gradually increase the time that you put the phone on airplane mode to have longer stretches of concentration.
  4. Turn Off Your Notifications
    Another way to decrease distractions from your phone is to turn off your notifications so you don’t hear a buzz every time someone likes one of your Twitter posts or a new article is posted on Trust us, all of the info will still be there when you go to check your phone a few hours later.
  5. Announce to the World That You’re Taking a Break
    A big thing that drives us to compulsively check our phones is the belief that we have to respond to every text, email and message immediately. If you want a little more serenity in your life, let people know that you are trying to take a break from your phone so you don’t feel as much pressure to check it compulsively. Then give yourself permission to check your phone for a few minutes once an hour, instead of looking at it every few minutes.
  6. Install an App to Help You Quit
    We know, we know. This sounds counter-intuitive. But actually, there are several apps out there that will help make you more aware of just how addicted you are to your phone and can help you break the habit. Most of these apps are available for Android due to Android’s open platform, but there are a few that work for the iPhone as well. Here are a few to try:

    1. Checky (Available for both iPhones and Androids): Shows you how many times you check your smartphone each day and offers stats about your use over time.
    2. BreakFree (Available for Androids): Tracks how much time you spend on different apps each day. It can send you notifications if you are checking your phone too much and turn off notifications and WiFi at set times.
    3. Moment (Available for iPhone): Tracks how much time you are spending on your phone each day and will block you from using your phone after you’ve reached your daily limit.

If you are reading this blog on your smartphone, take a moment to reflect on the irony, but then go to your settings and put your iPhone into airplane mode, or go search the Play Store on your Android phone for an App that could help you quit the habit. The world got along just fine before cellphones and curing yourself of your smartphone addiction could be one of the smartest things you do today.