Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Chicago: A Tale of Two Cities, Part II.

On Saturday the New York Times ran a front-page article, "In Deeply Divided Chicago, Most Agree: City Is Off Course." And yesterday The Week had a piece, "Chicago in crisis." Both paint a dystopian picture of life in the Second City. (Actually the Third City now.)

Since my wife and I moved back to Chicago from a 22-year hiatus in the suburbs and both feel the city is nicer than ever I felt compelled to respond. Yesterday I took on the charge of corruption. Today it's the state of Chicago's schools.

First from The Week (all emphasis mine):

Its strapped school system seems perpetually on the verge of collapse, and last month teachers staged a one-day strike to protest closings and budget cuts.

And from the Times:

These are among findings of a new survey by The New York Times and the Kaiser Family Foundation, which polled residents of a city that has been upended in recent months by revelations of questionable actions by the police, threats of a teachers’ strike, a school funding crisis and an uptick in violence.

Residents of Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city, appear to have lost faith in many of its essential institutions, including the police, courts and the public schools.

The article does include a rebuttal of sorts from the mayor's office, albeit with the usual spin:

“The mayor’s focus is on building on the progress we have made with generations-old issues in Chicago, from jobs to education to public safety,” Adam Collins, the spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “We are striving to grow our already record high school graduation rate, to build out our first-in-the-nation free community college program...

But concludes with this dire statistic:

Nearly half of all parents living with children said they would like to leave Chicago.

One thing I would like to make very clear is that I don't have any reason to question all of the facts and statistics critics cite in arguing that Chicago is a corrupt and violent place.

But, at the same time, I'm reminded of that famous quote of Groucho Marx's, "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?" And by that I mean, I know what the facts and statistics are, but my wife and I sure think the city is a nice to place to live. In fact, we'd argue, it's nicer than at any time since at least 1981, when I moved here after college.

As for Chicago's schools, when we left for Glenview back in 1992 there were essentially two choices for young parents: Latin or Parker (if you were gazillionaires) or a handful of Catholic schools. And, really, that was about it.

The public schools? For a couple of college-educated people like my wife and me, they were positively unheard of. So we moved, sent our two sons to the public schools in Glenview, and returned as empty-nesters almost two years ago. And, again, while I don't know what the facts and statistics are, I do know a number of college-educated professionals who send their kids to the Chicago Public Schools. If you were raised in the suburbs like I was, or raised your children in the suburbs like I did, this is hard to believe. But, I'm here to tell you, it's true.

I remember the first time I spoke with someone who lived in Hyde Park and she told me she sent her son to the local public school. I was incredulous! Since then, I've met a minister and his math professor wife who send their daughters to Andrew Jackson Language Academy in Little Italy, a doctor who also sends her twin daughters to Jackson, my two-doors-down neighbors (whom I think are both architects) who send their son and daughter to Smyth Elementary just south of Roosevelt Road, and a psychologist at Rush Hospital and her husband who send their child to Skinner in the West Loop. (I've also been told that STEM Magnet Academy just south of Taylor Street is good as well.)

If you had told me this just a couple of years ago I wouldn't have believed you. Send your kids to the Chicago Public Schools? That's insane! But it's true; a number of young, college-educated professionals in the city are doing just that. And you know what? It's okay.

So what happens after elementary school? Good question. I remember walking past Lake View High School in my old neighborhood back in the late 1980s or early 1990s. And I also remember thinking I just couldn't send a kid to a school like that. It looked so . . . urban. I thought back then (and still do) that I owed it to my kids to at least try to give them as good an education as I had. And so we moved to the 'burbs.

Today we live across the Eisenhower from Whitney Young (at top), a magnet high school. And I'm told that it's really good (and, incidentally, Michelle Obama's alma mater). I see the kids practicing lacrosse in the park across the street from me, running through the neighborhood for cross country and track, and heading for the Blue Line after school lets out in the afternoon. I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but these kids are all really nice-looking. In fact, they look just like the kids at any suburban high school, if only a little browner and blacker. I actually met a young girl from Whitney Young who was working at an event we attended and she was applying to a bunch of the nation's most prestigious colleges. And I could tell she was going to get into one of them and succeed.

Granted, Whitney Young is considered one of the best public high schools in the city. But it's not alone. Northside, Payton and Jones are just a few others with top-notch reputations. Oh, and all three were founded since we left back in 1992.

And that's just the public schools. I haven't even gotten to the private and Catholic schools, which I'm also convinced are even better than when we lived here two decades ago. And there are more of them, too. Since we came back two years ago, for example, Urban Prairie Waldorf School moved into the old Catholic school building down the street. Apparently, it had outgrown its old location in Pilsen. (And, I'm told, it may already be outgrowing its new site.) This sort of thing is happening all over the city.

Let's revisit that one quote from the New York Times piece:

Nearly half of all parents living with children said they would like to leave Chicago.

That may be true. And, I'll concede, life in the city is quite a bit different if you're white or live on the North Side. I do get that. I really do. But, having said that, I would also say that if my wife and I were a young couple with two neurotypical children today we would probably stay in the city and send our kids to the Chicago Public Schools. And I bet, just like the children from the families we know, they would be just fine.

Next: Chicago's struggles with crime, gun violence, police brutality and racism.

1 comment:

Ed Crotty said...

The Magnet schools in CPS are perhaps the best in the state. Anecdote: I used to work with a guy whose wife was starting out as a family practice doctor - when their daughter didn't get into Payton ( she did get in to Whitney Young ) they packed up and moved from the NW side to south Naperville to go to Neuqua Valley.