Schools on the North and Northwest sides enrolled more students even as enrollment slipped across the city’s school system to 404,589 last year, down 1.5 percent from five years ago, state records show.
Student attendance in the northern stretch of the city climbed 2.4 percent during the last two years from 121,897 to 124,836 students in 2010-11, according to district enrollment records. The growth, while slight, came as attendance slipped in every other city zone — the West, Southwest, South and Far South sides.
And citywide, residents who had children were more likely to stay more years in their city residence in 2009 than they were in 1990, according to a preliminary analysis of census data by Jim Lewis, a demographer and senior program officer at the Chicago Community Trust.
Come Labor Day, Amy Smolensky will enroll her children for another year at Burley Elementary School. On Monday, with an eye to the upcoming year, she and her husband, Dan, coaxed their second- and third-grade sons to write in their summer journals for a few minutes.
Smolensky volunteers with the parent group, fundraises for the Lakeview school known for its literature and technology programs and volunteers with Raise Your Hand, a coalition of CPS parents.
Still, the to-stay-or-to-leave-Chicago question remains a perennial conversation topic among her friends, one fueled by every budget cut, unpopular district policy or competitive turn in the admissions required for the city’s top schools. Many parents now eye high school and the long odds of acceptance to a selective enrollment school as the new pressure point that could drive them from Chicago.
“I feel like we are here to stay … yet it’s a roller-coaster ride,” Smolensky said. “It’s a constant struggle.”
Former Mayor Richard Daley took control of the city’s school system in 1995, seeking to stabilize CPS, once dubbed the worst school system in America, and keep middle class parents in the city by scattering magnet and gifted programs like gems. His successor, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, focused early on improving public education offerings as a lifeblood for economic growth.
The pull of city living also may play into an enrollment boom in parochial schools, which are less expensive than other private schools. City preschool and kindergarten enrollment in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago schools outpaced the rate of growth recently seen across the archdiocese that spans Cook and Lake counties, records show.
Preschool and kindergarten enrollment in the city’s archdiocese schools climbed 9 percent from 2006 to 2010 as compared with a 2.4 percent drop recorded among suburban schools during the same span, according to archdiocese enrollment figures. Systemwide, preschool and kindergarten enrollment notched up 3.2 percent from 2006 to 2010.
“We think what we’re seeing is more families who may have bought a one- or two-bedroom condo with the intent to be there for a limited number of years. … Those families are staying longer,” said Ryan Blackburn, a spokesman for archdiocese schools.
Surrounded by brick bungalows and towering trees, St Matthias Transfiguration Elementary School sits in the city’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. The school’s enrollment ballooned 92 percent during the last seven years to reach 332 students registered for fall, according to school officials.
St. Matthias Pastor John Sanaghan said he sees more young families in the church pews as well. Last year, Sanaghan said he baptized eight children for every funeral held at the church, whereas the church recorded 1.5 baptisms for every funeral in 2000.
“I looked out my window one day last spring and there was a traffic jam of baby buggies,” Sanaghan said. “It’s like a town square.”
Traci Failla and her husband settled in their Lincoln Square home seven years ago, planning for an urban life where their children could take the city bus and walk to nearby parks. Living a half block from St. Matthias, whose intimacy she liked, made the decision easier.
“With someone in third grade and someone in first grade, I don’t see any reason to move,” Failla said.
Demographers said Failla reflects a new mold of urban dweller.
“We’re gradually moving in a generation of people that are in their 20s and 30s who are a lot more urban in their basic orientation,” said Lewis, of the Chicago Community Trust. “They like living in the city and they are trying to find a way to stay as opposed to having the ideal of living on a corner lot.”
The trend varies, however, by neighborhood.
During recent years, from 2008 to 2010, the number of students residing in North and Northwest side communities grew by a slight 3.5 percent even as fewer students reported living in every other zone, district enrollment records show. CPS officials say the growth plateaued in recent years.
School enrollment in many cases climbed as parent-led campaigns spread to add academic programs and raise funds to supplement everything from arts education to classroom iPads.
Wapole volunteers in the library at Waters Elementary School, tends to the school birds during break and judges the school’s science fair. She also sits on the local school council of the Ravenswood school.
While she likes the grade school, Wapole already worries about high school even though her oldest child is only 10.
CPS students submitted 63,267 applications for entry to the city’s nine selective enrollment high schools for the coming school year, district records show. Of those, 8 percent — or 5,196 — were accepted. Northside College Prep High School, one of the state’s top schools by any measure, accepted 296 of the 7,419 applications submitted.
“In the city, there’s this anxiety of at 13 or 14, where is my kid going to go? … That’s the part where I look enviously at my suburban sisters,” Wapole said.
Grade schools were no different. Acceptance rates to Chicago’s magnet grade schools spanned 21 percent to 2 percent for the coming school year, according to district records. In kindergarten, competition was worse.
Drummond Montessori Elementary School, for instance, received 703 applications for three available spots in kindergarten this fall. Because the public school’s Montessori program begins in preschool, most spots fill and make the competition for kindergarten seats more difficult. Drummond received 400 applications for 36 spots in the preschool program for 3-year-olds, district records show.
Recent changes to the admissions rules further fray parents’ nerves.
With a federal order banning race as a key admissions factor, district officials now group students into four tiers based on social and economic characteristics of an applicant’s neighborhood, accounting for everything from median income and adult education to the performance of local schools.
Confronted with these facts, some CPS parents recruit tutors for their children as early as age 3 and scour the Internet for age-appropriate questions used by other urban districts to help prep their kids.
That wasn’t the route Deirdre Levine wanted to take.
“I couldn’t figure out how to get into those schools, and I didn’t want to have to negotiate that at kindergarten,” said Levine, who focused instead on improving the school just steps from her North Center home — Coonley Elementary.
In the end, Levine and her husband decided to enroll their son in a private Montessori school when he begins kindergarten this fall. The philosophy fits him, and Levine couldn’t shake her concerns about CPS’ short academic day and the recent decision to serve breakfast in all classrooms, which further cuts class time.
The couple, both of whom were raised in the north suburbs, plan to remain in Chicago.
Brandy Isaac thought she’d stay in Chicago when she and her husband bought a duplex in the city’s Southport Corridor in 2004. They liked the neighborhood school and the magnet school down the road.
“We thought this would buy us seven years. Then we would probably go to the suburbs,” Isaac recalled.
But deterred by the magnet admissions process, intrigued by anecdotes from friends in the suburbs and lured by the idea of a lawn where her kids could play, Isaac spent a year researching different towns and school systems that might suit her family. They settled on Glenview and enrolled their oldest child in kindergarten at Lyon Elementary School last fall.
“It still is emotional, but there’s no remorse. That went away quickly,” Isaac said. “We joke about when the kids are off to college, we may move back to the city.”