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Back when I was a kid, growing up in the West Rogers Park Neighborhood of Chicago, we would often ask other kids we didn't know, "Public, or Private?"  We were referring to which school they went to - whether or not they attended the Chicago Public Schools.

Proudly, I was "Public," and our Chicago Schools turned out some pretty good kids back then, and most individual grade and high schools were pretty well respected in the city and suburbs.

As we all know, that perception began to change in the late 1960's, and through the 1970's, as many families fled perceived inequities in the Chicago Public School System for the "higher status districts" throughout the suburbs.  Nearly-annual teacher strikes during that period did not help public schools here during that era. 

Now, however, many city schools are improving in amenities and academic quality, and families are either moving back to the city from the suburbs, or deciding to start their families here.

Doreen Lubeck, her husband Mike, and their daughter Maddie, 11 years old, might typify the attitude of many parents with young children.  Originally moving to suburban Palatine IL in 2004, the family relocated to the North Center Neighborhood of Chicago two years later.

"When you don't have kids, the city is one thing. There's lots of great restaurants, great night life and lots of fun things to do," says Doreen. "And then when you have kids, you find out the city is also really great.

"On a Saturday night in the summer, we'll say let's go to Navy Pier, while I know a lot of my friends have to make a day out of coming into the city because it can be over an hour's drive," she added.

Indeed, many young couples cite city attractions, a reduced daily commute, and cultural diversity as their reason for moving to and living in Chicago.  For those with school-aged children, however, city moves would be less attractive without improvement in the Chicago Public School System.

Bell School, and K-8 Elementary at 3730 N. Oakley, is a good example of a strong neighborhood school, which attracts parents of young children to their North Side district.  Attendance here has nearly doubled, from 264 during the 2001-2002 school year, to 519 last year.

According to Lubeck, Bell School has "very, very involved parents who take responsibility ... if someone has an idea, they're not afraid to get their hands dirty and do it."

They also have a very active and creative administration, and enthusiastic, engaging teachers, in Lubeck's opinion.

Although, district-wide, Chicago Public Schools have lost roughly 40,000 students since the 2001-02 school year, strong neighborhood schools like Bell oppose the trend. 

Private schools in the City of Chicago are also enjoying student growth. Shane Staszcuk, Principal of Mt. Carmel Academy, notes the shift from singles and childless couples.  "The whole neighborhood has transitioned in terms of more families and more kids," he said.

"People used to come for maybe a couple of years and then once the kids reached a certain age, they were going to look for a home in the suburbs. Now they are saying, 'I can get all my schooling here why go to the suburbs?' "

Enrollment at Mt. Carmel, 720 W. Belmont Avenue, has increased by 40 students over the last three years.  The kindergarten class is already full for next school year, and there is currently a waiting list for the Mt. Carmel pre-school.

A number of public and parochial schools on the North Side have seen growth. Enrollment rose 22 percent, to 3,052 in the 2007-08 from 2,502 four years earlier, in ten Catholic schools in Lakeview, Lincoln Park and Lincoln Square, according to  Ryan Blackburn, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.

Other public schools are coming back strong on the North Side of Chicago.  Nettelhorst Elementary, at 3252 N. Broadway, had meetings with parents and school administrators to discuss which improvements in their school would have the greatest impact on children who attend.  Continued improvements in programs and school infrastructure has helped to increase attendance to 242 students this past school year, up from 132  seven years ago.

The non-profit Northside Parents Network publishes an annual directory of local public and private schools, which includes statistics, test scores and entrance requirements.

It also hosts several preschool and elementary school fairs every fall for the North, Northwest and South Sides "to educate parents about their choices," said Christina DeMarea, the network's executive director.

Bob Guercio, Principal at Bell Elementary, also notes added programs at his school, including the regional gifted center and Bell's hearing-impaired program, draw from outside the district. But the largest wave is neighborhood kids.  When Guercio arrived at Bell in 1993, he had only 20 children enrolled in its Kindergarten.  Now, he has three Kindergartens. 

Indeed, the school district is a big drawing card for the community.  Looking at the MLS, many home listings in the neighborhood cite "Bell School District" as a big selling point.

Guercio says he is amazed at the number of families now raising children in the school's Lakeview Neighborhood.

Read Virginia Groark's article in last Sunday's Chicago Tribune for more info.


Posted: Wednesday, July 2, 2008 6:40 AM by Dean's Team


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