Schools. That's the word that keeps parents of infants awake at night, the topic that can cause fierce debates between otherwise best friends. And it's the reason why families are selling their dream homes at great losses to move across Chicago to be within the boundaries of a given school-or even leaving the Windy City to move to the suburbs.
"It's pretty common for people to move for their school," says Christine Whitley, of Christine Whitley Education Consulting, which helps Chicago-area parents navigate through the Chicago Public School system. "School is a big piece of choosing a neighborhood."
But sometimes it's not so easy to give up a home and move, and that's why it's good-but overwhelming-that there are so many options here.
There are four different types of public school options in Chicago, and each has its own application. There's also the private-school route, and within the private schools, there are religious schools, Waldorf schools, Montessori and other specialized types of education.
To say that these options, applications and decisions can make a parent lose his or her mind before their child turns 3 (that's the age Whitley recommends they start thinking about kindergarten choices), is an understatement.
There's no right or wrong answer, and that's what makes the school decision so hard. Parents may decide to move to the suburbs only to move back a few years later when they realize that the 'burbs aren't a good fit.
Or they enroll in a private school and don't like how it meshes with their child, so they return to their neighborhood public school.
Louisa Vassileva Carney, a former international trade attorney and currently a stay-at-home mother of two young children, has already changed her mind about schooling-and her oldest child is only 6.
"I'm a city girl at heart, and just can't imagine giving up what the city and city living has to offer," Carney says of her decision to stay in the South Loop. "We bought in the South Loop hoping that one day our children would be gifted enough to get accepted at the South Loop Elementary Gifted Center. However, it was eliminated the year Izzy was to apply for pre-k."
So Carney enrolled Izzy at the British School of Chicago for preschool and loved nearly everything about it except the price.
The following year, Carney applied for CPS schools and Izzy was accepted into Skinner North Classical, where she made the switch last year for kindergarten and remains this year for the first grade.
"I can't say that I'm thrilled with the school, but I guess you get what you pay for," Carney says. "My greatest concern switching from private to CPS was class size, and that fear totally materialized."
Now that Izzy is in the first grade, they have an assistant in the classroom, but it was challenging in kindergarten, Carney says.
"Izzy wasn't used to the chaos and the aggressive behavior exhibited by some kids," she says. "Even though academically, things might be almost comparable, I think there's a lot to be said about the environment and atmosphere. If money were irrelevant, I would take her back to British in a heartbeat."
As for now, British is Carney's backup plan if CPS doesn't work out down the line.
Overcrowding-and lack of options -is the reason why another Chicago family moved to Skokie.
Crystal Johnson, executive director of the Chicago Metro History Education Center, had previously lived in Portage Park and loved her experience with the tuition-based Disney II.
Then, she went through what she described as "what can be a nightmare for parents of multiples"-the lottery and testing system to get into the Chicago Public Schools.
"We have three kids and two full-time working parents. "The (system) can be a nightmare unless your eldest happens to get the golden ticket at Disney II. Winding up with three kids at different schools-most likely several miles away from our home-was not an option for us if we wanted to continue to work."
But her child was waitlisted at all 26 schools via the CPS lottery.
"Though we would have preferred to have stayed in the city-and I have the most enormous respect for CSP teachers-we chose Skokie over Chicago," Johnson says, citing overcrowding at even the highly ranked CPS schools and the lack of facilities such as playgrounds, labs, libraries, music rooms and air conditioning in many schools.
"I didn't want my kids to get lost in the cracks, even with the best teaching," she says. "Our current schools has 21 kids in kindergarten and 16 in pre-k with two full-time certified teachers."
So they uprooted and found a suburb that had a very good public school two blocks away from their new home, which has racial, socioeconomic and academic diversity.
Another family that uprooted for the kids' schools was the Oh family, who moved from Bridgeport to Glenview.
"It was a very tough decision for us, as we thought we would be staying in Chicago," says Irene Oh.
Oh applied to a handful of magnet schools, gifted programs and classical schools for her child without success. Oh, a senior IT business consultant, says she also applied to some of the top private schools, including one in Des Plaines but only were accepted at the British School as well as Science & Arts Academy in Des Plaines.
"Even after our decision, we wondered if we made the right choice, because we didn't know anyone at Science and Arts Academy, I only had online reviews to go by in addition to my tour," Oh says. "But we showed up at Science and Arts Academy and it turned out to be such an amazing school. The problem is that they don't have a high school, so we are going to be going through this dilemma again when the time comes."
And of course, there's always the regret of leaving Chicago.
"When we lived in Chicago, we would spontaneously go to the various museums and have picnics along the lake," she says. "The kids also loved taking the El train-we would circle the Loop just for fun. After our adventures, we knew we could be home within about 15 minutes."
Still, not everyone has given up on Chicago.
Jayanthi Annadurai, a Chicago School Choice manager with Neighborhood Parents Network and an independent education consultant with PREP Chicago, a test preparation and school search company, says she loves the buzz of the city, its diversity and all the culture it contains.
So she chose her home based on its neighborhood school.
"We wanted a great neighborhood school, so we sacrificed buying a larger home-it's more expensive to live near the coveted CPS schools," Annadurai says of Coonley School.
Since her children are only 4 and 7, she doesn't know yet where they're going to go for high school but she has some ideas.
"We will do the CPS Selective Enrollment testing, but I am also planning on getting involved in our local neighborhood high school to see what we can do to help turn that school around," Annadurai says.
Dona Nishi, who lives in the Little Italy neighborhood, also has chosen to stay very active in her children's schools so she can stay in Chicago.
Her third-grader attends Urban Prairie Waldorf School, while her kindergartner is completing her final year at City Garden, the sister school.
"A typical week sees her in a garden, learning the violin, singing in a round with her classmates, practicing cursive writing, jump roping while spelling words or practicing arithmetic and laughing as she runs," Nishi says of her third-grader.
They never planned on sending both children to private school, but after applying to 10 selective enrollment and magnet schools for her oldest without any luck, Nishi decided to continue with City Garden's program, which goes through kindergarten.
Still, like other Chicago-area families, high school is still a question mark.
"We have great hopes that a reasonable, rigorous and empathic program will unfold to which we will be able to send our children," Nishi says. "We don't expect our kids to attend Harvard, but it would be great to have a school that provides a well-rounded education for all children that doesn't depend upon test scores and 100 percent attendance for two years in order to get in."
Danielle Braff lives with her two daughters and husband in downtown Chicago.
See more of Danielle's stories here.