Suburbia's Waiting Room - NBC Chicago
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Suburbia's Waiting Room



    Many people are calling Mayor Rahm Emanuel a hypocrite because he gave an interview to the Sun-Times in which he begged middle-class parents, “don’t head for the doors when your kid’s in fifth grade or sixth grade — for the suburbs — because the city of Chicago is going to give you a high-quality life with a high-quality education for your children.”

    Commenters seized on the fact that the mayor himself won’t send his middle-school age children to Chicago public schools.

    “Thats easy for him to say with his children safely enrolled in Lab School at University of Chicago,” one commenter on the Sun-Times wrote. “A typical one as I say, not as I do.”

    It’s true that Rahm is a limousine liberal. But he’s not a hypocrite when he asks the middle class to stay in Chicago schools, because he’s not middle class. He’s upper class. The upper class doesn’t need to flee to the suburbs, because they have the option of the Lab School, the Latin School and Francis Parker.

    Most of Emanuel’s neighbors are middle class, though, which is why his alderman, Ameya Pawar, has made improving the 47th Ward’s schools one of top goals. Shortly after taking office last year, Pawar founded an organization called Grow 47, which aims to bring neighborhood schools up to the level of magnet schools, so Brian and Jen don’t freak out and move to Wilmette if Jacob and Emily don’t test into Northside College Prep or Walter Payton.    

    Grow 47 is chaired by former Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, whose children attend Bell Elementary. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Lincoln Square was a starter neighborhood for families who often ended up moving to the suburbs once their children reached school age. Now that real estate prices have crashed, those families can’t afford to sell their houses. Forced to stay in the city, they’ve focused on making Bell Elementary and Coonley Elementary the equal of any suburban grammar school. Bell is one of the highest-testing grammar schools in the city. The school is so popular it’s listed in real estate ads. As the students at those schools reach middle-school and high-school age, Pawar wants to harness that parental involvement to make Lake View and Amundsen high schools just as desirable. Pawar spent over $10 million in TIF money to expand Coonley. This month, Lake View was named a STEM Academy, which will allow students to earn college credits in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

    “Parents live in constant stress that their child has to get right test score to get into the right high school, to get into right college,” Pawar told me when I interviewed him for a cover story in Time Out Chicago. “In the suburbs, you just go to your neighborhood schools, and there isn't this crazy web of testing. The conversation is, ‘Ameya, when you take my property taxes and add private school tuition if my kid doesn’t get in, it’s cheaper to live in the suburbs.’ We have to move beyond this idea that there are neighborhoods in this city that are waiting rooms for the suburbs.”

    I also asked Pawar whether it would be easier to sell 47th Ward parents on Chicago Public School if Emanuel sent his children there. He gave me a political answer, but one that explained why even the upper class has a stake in the public schools.

    “That’s a family decision,” he said. “Whether or not you send your kids to private school or not, if your neighborhood is doing well, guess what, your property value is going up.”

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