Gentrifiers give Chicago Public Schools a chance

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When Molly Fox began for looking for suitable schools for her two young sons, she didn’t buy into conventional wisdom.

“Everybody was saying, ‘There’s no such thing as a good public school in Chicago,'” she recalls. Even magnet schools were getting a bad rap. “One mother said to me, ‘That would be tantamount to child abuse.'”

Molly was skeptical. “It can’t possibly be that bad.”

Still, she and her husband, Ari, whose career change from corporate attorney to high-end food retailer brought the family to Chicago, initially considered private schools.

“All the mothers are telling me, ‘Here’s your choice: You have to do Latin/Parker/Anshe-Emet/City-Day,'” says Molly, recalling how they would run together the names of four prestigious North Side private schools.

But ultimately they took a pass. Tuition was expensive, the application process difficult and the odds of Jonah, now 4, and Elijah, 2, getting into a school with only six open slots were overwhelmingly against them.

They started thinking about other options. Moving to the suburbs was easily crossed off the list. Ari was working long hours at his new store, Fox & Obel, and a long commute would take even more time away from family. So Molly decided to investigate the neighborhood’s public schools for herself.

She called Jack Harnedy, who runs CPS magnet programs, and asked him to suggest magnet and neighborhood schools that she should consider. She talked to principals at a half-dozen schools, and spoke with parents who had children already enrolled in them. She also visited the schools and went to PTA meetings.

Once Molly completed her search, the Foxes settled on Blaine Elementary in Lake View. The school’s test scores have risen dramatically—from 20 percent of students reading at or above national norms in 1991 to 62.7 percent last year.

More important to Molly, though, was Blaine’s emphasis on reading—she was particularly impressed by the school library—and its holistic approach to education.

“I loved it,” she says. “I loved the principal. She’s dynamic, she’s creative. The library is fantastic. She’s got the Suzuki-Orff music program. They have gym. They do recess.”

Now the Foxes are shopping for a house located within Blaine’s attendance boundaries. However, the search has not been easy. The median price of a single family home in Lake View was $565,000 in 2000, up 126 percent since 1993.

Purchasing a home in the half-million-dollar price range would be a financial stretch, Molly says. Plus, “the houses I’m seeing don’t scream half-a-million dollars to me,” she says.

Out of step

The Foxes may have a hard time finding a house within their financial range in gentrified Lake View, says Ronald Hollaender, a real estate broker who has lived and worked in the neighborhood for years.

It’s also unusual, he says, for an upper middle class family to send their children to Blaine. “It’s a good school, but people in that neighborhood who have paid $500,000 to $800,000 for their homes, I don’t see them sending [their children] to Blaine,” he says. But Blaine is attracting middle class families. In fact, the percentage of students who receive free or reduced-priced lunches, a proxy for low-income, dropped sharply between 1995 and 2000—from 90 percent to 72 percent.

Last year, Blaine became the site for one of 13 new, tuition-based preschools, a program designed to lure affluent families into neighborhood public schools. Blaine’s program currently has more students than any other, and its waiting list is among the longest, says CPS Deputy Chief Education Officer Armando Almendarez, who oversees early childhood programs.

Status not a priority

Molly Fox says that keeping in step with the neighbors has never been a priority for her or Ari. “Both of us come from backgrounds where we didn’t have a lot growing up,” she says. “And we both chose paths that didn’t necessarily give us a lot [financially], but the rewards were fantastic. We don’t necessarily think of education as a status issue.”

In January, the Foxes found a house in their price range near Blaine and signed a contract. The deal is set to close in late February.

Molly says she is hopeful things will work out and has no regrets. “I have no idea what’s going to happen,” she says. “But I want to shake all these people who said you can’t do public school in the city. It’s not true. It’s just not true.”