I am a Chicagoan through and through.
So when my husband and I decided to buy a house, it was only natural for us to look for a house here in the city. And that’s where we ended up — in a house in Irving Park three times the size of our tiny Logan Square condo.
When we began house hunting, the first decision we had to make was where to look. Immediately, we narrowed to our beloved Logan Square. Like most well-heeled young parents in Chicago, though, the thought of navigating the lottery-based Chicago Public School system had us second-guessing. Logan Square has one decent elementary school, and we did not live in its district. The school across the street was rated below-average, and we didn’t want to send our kids there. So we narrowed further to the area surrounding the one good school in the neighborhood but we just couldn’t afford the houses there.
So we did the unthinkable and started considering the suburbs. We struck out the far-flung ones such as Naperville and the like straightaway and landed on Evanston and Oak Park. While there are many good reasons to live in those suburbs — they are more city-like and racially diverse than others, they have excellent schools and even pretty good restaurants — we are just not suburbanites. We greatly value being able to raise our mixed-race kids in a city like Chicago, which has both urban culture and diversity.
But was our children’s education more important than our love of Chicago? I attended an excellent elementary magnet school here — Decatur Classical — that was located about an hour away from my home. Would my kids test into schools like that and, most important, did I really want that for them? Decatur was pretty intense.
A TWO-PART QUESTION
We thought long and hard and decided we wanted to invest in our city. Most middle-class people with kids our age flee to the suburbs, citing the poor academic performance of CPS. Others break the bank to live in the district of better-performing public schools or send their children to private schools. For us, it’s more complicated. The two-part question that we were left with when we were making this decision was could families like ours with two educated, middle-class parents have a positive impact on city schools? Could our participation improve them not just for our own children, but for other children as well?
My husband and I decided that the answer to that question was yes. There are many examples of urban middle-class families uniting to improve public schools both for their own children, as well as for neighborhood children. I believe the more of us that can commit to that, the more we can demand excellence and help struggling schools get there. And after sending our preschool-age son to a neighborhood school for the past year, I think they get a bum rap — now there is evidence to back that up. A recent Chicago Sun-Times analysis of “MAP” test results showed that Chicago Public School test scores, especially in reading, outpace those of charter schools, which are a pet project of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The mayor loves charter schools so much that he has funded them at the expense of our city’s public schools. Perhaps more middle-class parents could be convinced to also invest in CPS if he showed that same kind of allegiance to our public schools.
While we won’t enroll our children in a failing school (we’re not that altruistic), there are plenty of good neighborhood schools in the city; there is even one in walking distance of our new affordable house. We also know that a school is not the end-all, be-all of raising intelligent, engaged children. The commitment of family and friends to the education and growth of children is powerful in combination with dedicated teachers that many neighborhood schools can offer. There are all kinds of communities to be had in a city, and we are in for the long haul.
Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business September 2014