Sandro and Sue Serra (left), Ryan Zoghlin and Melissa Moore (middle), and Jackie (right) and Johnny (not pictured) Strapp all left Chicago to enroll their children in higher-performing suburban public schools.
Sandro and Sue Serra (left), Ryan Zoghlin and Melissa Moore (middle), and Jackie (right) and Johnny (not pictured) Strapp all left Chicago to enroll their children in higher-performing suburban public schools. Credit: Anjali Pinto

This is the second installment in our occasional series on poverty and segregation in Chicago’s schools.

Chicago’s public schools have performed abysmally for years on many measures. But that’s how schools with overwhelmingly low-income enrollments typically do. On the Program for International Student Assessment in 2009, U.S. schools with small proportions of low-income students did as well as schools anywhere in the world—while American schools whose enrollments were more than 75 percent low-income scored like schools in developing countries.

In Chicago, low-income enrollments are the norm. Last year, an astonishing 85 percent of CPS students were from low-income families.

Why is the proportion of low-income CPS students as high as it is when the citywide proportion of low-income families with children under age 18 is a much lower 52 percent? Mainly because so many middle-class parents are unwilling to send their kids to the city’s public schools. Instead, they send them to private schools, or, when their children reach school age (or high school age), they move to the suburbs.

This isn’t a new development. It’s a legacy of the racial segregation that has characterized Chicago and its public schools for decades. In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, the schools here changed from predominantly white and middle-class to overwhelmingly black, Hispanic, and low-income.

Credit: Image: Paul John Higgins/Sources: Left, calculated from 2011 American Community Survey data; right, Chicago Public Schools

The exodus has had a deleterious impact on the city’s schools. Middle-class parents tend to be zealous advocates. They’re more likely to know an alderman or a reporter, and make noise about a problem their children’s school is facing. The clout of a school system as a whole increases when middle-class parents have a stake in it. Middle-class parents can afford to contribute financially to their kids’ school.

Most important, many studies have also highlighted the importance of “peer effects” in schools. They’ve shown that kids benefit from classmates whose parents have stimulated them cognitively from an early age, and who have helped them develop self-control and other social skills—the kind of parenting more common in middle-class homes than in poor homes.

Some middle-class parents are willing to keep their kids in CPS so long as it’s in one of the city’s boutique magnet schools—high schools such as Payton, Whitney Young, Northside, Lindblom, Jones, and Lane Tech, and elementary schools such as Bell, Edison, Decatur, Franklin, Suder, Skinner North, Skinner West, Murray, and Hawthorne. Those schools have low-income proportions far smaller than that 85 percent: last year, Edison’s was just 11 percent, and Hawthorne’s was 19 percent.

But in a system with 681 schools, the special schools are relatively few, and competition for spots in them is fierce. Many middle-class parents try to get their child into one of them, fail, and then start packing.

Why do such parents choose to move? Can anything be done to keep them?

The Serras left their beloved home in North Park on Chicago's north side for the suburb of Vernon Hills, 30 miles away, to give their three daughters equal chances for success.
The Serras left their beloved home in North Park on Chicago’s north side for the suburb of Vernon Hills, 30 miles away, to give their three daughters equal chances for success.Credit: Amanda Areias

“I do realize that a lot of people can’t afford to move.”

Nine years ago, Sue and Sandro Serra bought a four-bedroom home at Ardmore and Spaulding, in North Park. It needed work, but it was a charming 1930s brick Tudor, on a double lot, and the Serras saw its potential. “We stripped it to the studs and rebuilt it, thinking, ‘This is our house for the rest of our lives,'” Sue says. “We put an incredibly stupid amount of money into rehabbing it. We put on a new roof, installed a sump pump, waterproofed the basement, replaced the basement windows, upgraded all the electrical, bought new appliances.”

The Serras had two daughters, ages three and one, and soon would have another. They couldn’t afford both the home and private school for their kids, so Sue checked out the neighborhood public school, Peterson, before they bought. She met with the principal and toured Peterson and liked it.

Their children, Isabella, Gabriella, and Daniela, are now 12, ten, and eight. They all attended Peterson, and the Serras say it was mostly a good experience for them. “We had an amazingly dynamic principal who worked really well with the teachers,” Sandro says.

But as Isabella approached high school age, the Serras considered the options for her in CPS, and for their two other daughters in the approaching years—and they didn’t like what they saw. A few months ago, they sold their home and moved to Vernon Hills, a village 30 miles northwest of Chicago, in Lake County.

“We sold the house for what we paid for it nine years ago,” Sue says. “Our buyers got a free rehab. We lost like $200,000. That’s college tuition money, just gone.”

The Serras and I are sitting on the brick-and-stone patio behind their new four-bedroom home. It’s a bright day in early August. The water in the patio’s swimming pool is sparkling in the sun. The patio overlooks the second hole of the White Deer Run Golf Club, the hole’s green guarded by bunkers and a pond. Nearby streets are named for golf courses—Torrey Pines, Congressional.

“We didn’t know a soul coming up here,” Sue says. “We might as well have moved to Nebraska.”

Sue is a real estate broker and small-business consultant who works from home. She’s, 42, fit, and tan. A tattoo behind her shoulder says, “The mind is everything. What you think you become.”

She grew up in Broadview Heights, Ohio, an affluent, nearly all-white town between Cleveland and Akron. In her neighborhood, she could play outside with few limitations. “There was no fear of anything or anyone,” she says. Her public elementary and high schools were “safe environments with zero diversity. When I went away to college, I had no idea what a Jewish person was, or an Asian or Indian or black.”

Sandro, 45, is a business development manager for USA Today who also works mainly from home. He grew up in a high-rise on Sheridan Road in Edgewater and attended Saint Gertrude elementary and Saint Ignatius high schools. Both schools were about 70 percent white and 30 percent minority, he says. He took a train and a bus to Saint Ignatius, on the Near South Side. He had to wait for the bus in an “extremely sketchy” area, but he’s glad he had that commuting experience. “It made me street-smart, made me grow up quicker.”

Sue graduated from Ohio State, Sandro from the University of Wisconsin. They lived in Bucktown before they bought the home in North Park.

The Serras found North Park appealing in part because it was so ethnically diverse—it was home to many Asian immigrants and refugees. Sandro’s father was an immigrant: he came here from Italy in the 1960s. Sue didn’t want her daughters growing up in a neighborhood as homogeneous as the one she was raised in. “The real world is not a bunch of white people in a bubble,” she says, and she didn’t want her daughters thinking it was.

Peterson elementary, at 5510 N. Christiana—three blocks from the Serras—was no such bubble. Last year its enrollment was 35 percent Hispanic, 31 percent Asian, and only a quarter white. “Our girls had friends from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Korea,” Sue says. “They were a minority, and I loved that, because our girls were exposed to so many different cultures, foods and religions and beliefs, and how people look and dress.” The student body was also 77 percent low-income.

At PTA meetings and other school events, however, “You really didn’t get those ethnic groups to participate,” Sue says, “because they’re out of their comfort zone, or they’re out working numerous jobs, or they don’t understand English.” There was also little mixing between ethnic groups in the neighborhood. “Everyone self-segregates,” she says.

North Park has one of the lower crime rates in the city, but the safety of their children factored into the Serras’ decision to move. Though there were owner-occupied homes on the corners of their block, “everything else was rentals up and down the street, so it was a very transient kind of neighborhood,” Sue says.

Her daughters used to beg her to let them ride their bikes around the block. But doing so meant crossing the mouth of an alley twice. “Cars would come flying down that alley,” Sue says. “I let them do it once, and they came back petrified because a car had almost hit them. So they never even asked again.”

She says that twice earlier this year, a man exposed himself to eighth-grade girls who were walking to Peterson in the morning. “So I wouldn’t trust the girls to go anywhere outside.” She adds that there were 56 registered sex offenders in a one-mile radius of their house in North Park. “Here, there are six.”

Peterson went on lockdown one day in May, after it was discovered that a student had brought an ammunition clip into the school. Students were huddled in corners of classrooms while police searched hallway lockers. “They thought that if there’s a clip, there must be a gun somewhere,” Sue says. “They were opening and slamming the lockers, and the kids thought it was gunfire—I mean, it was crazy.” The Serras also heard gunshots outside their house shortly before they moved.

“I know we made the right decision,” Sue says. Now their daughters ride their bikes up and down the street to see friends. “I mean, I don’t even know where they are right now,” she says. “They’re like at someone’s house three doors down.”

Had the family not moved, the neighborhood high school for the Serra children would have been Mather, at 5800 N. Lincoln. Mather’s enrollment is 87 percent low-income. Its graduation rate in 2012, 61 percent, was the CPS average. Mather juniors last year averaged 16.7 on the ACT, which is at about the 25th percentile nationally. The Serras never seriously considered the school. “From what I’ve been able to find, either online or through other people in the neighborhood, it’s just a very low-performing school,” Sue says. “The faculty, I think, is just tired and beaten down.”

Chicago’s high-performing selective-enrollment high schools seemed an unrealistic option. Slots aren’t automatically granted to siblings, and the chance of all three children winning places in one of the ten schools, given the extensive competition, were minuscule. Even if they aced the entrance exams, the tier system—designed to ensure that the selective-enrollment schools are economically integrated—would have worked against them, Sue says. More of the applicants are, like the Serras, from census tracts with higher incomes.

They wanted their daughters to have the same chances for success, Sandro says, which wouldn’t be the case if one attended a selective-enrollment school and the others were relegated to Mather. Similarly, if they paid for private school for one child, they felt they should do so for all three. But that would cut deeply into the money Sue and Sandro were saving for college.

“Not that the kids would get a bad education at Mather,” Sandro says. “I can’t speak to that intelligently. I think there are a ton of great teachers and excellent principals in CPS.” But he was concerned about “other influences” that students in Chicago high schools regularly confront. He named drugs, gangs, violence, and classmates “who have zero direction, who disrupt the classroom.

“Those are factors I don’t want my kids to have to deal with,” he says. “If they’re going to English class and they’re worried about the kid behind them carrying a nine-millimeter gun, they’re not thinking about what Romeo is saying in Shakespeare.”

Sandro adds that while there are special programs for the very brightest kids in CPS, and for kids with particular challenges, such as English as a second language, the “majority in the middle” is often neglected.

“That happened with our oldest,” Sue says. “In third grade she was really lost at reading, and she was hating math.” Sue got a high school girl to tutor her “because it wasn’t being handled in the classroom. The teachers are working with the struggling students, and the advanced kids work in a group themselves, and the middle gets left out.”

According to census data, Vernon Hills is 65 percent non-Hispanic white, 19 percent Asian, 11 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent black. Its median household income is $90,301, and 3.3 percent of families are below the poverty line. In the Serras’ new school district, Hawthorn, 27 percent of the children are from low-income families.

“There is diversity up here,” Sue says. “There are Indian and Asian and Hispanic families, but everyone’s on the same economic level. We have more of a connection with our neighbors because we all have college educations and jobs.” The immigrants in North Park tend to have “zero education, and they’re cabdrivers, they’re cleaning office buildings,” she says. “I’m not going to have a lot in common with those people.”

The Serras think too much wealth can be detrimental for kids. “We ruled out Winnetka and Wilmette and that whole New Trier scene,” Sue says. “We didn’t want that in-your-face affluence. Up here, there’s not a North Shore kind of attitude. The people we’ve met are all extremely down-to-earth. It’s not bankers and lawyers and surgeons.”

Sandro adds: “I don’t think it’s normal for kids to be driving a BMW or having their own car at 16, or going on six vacations a year. I don’t think that sends the right message to your kids.”

I remind them that we’re sitting in front of a built-in swimming pool on a patio overlooking a golf course. Sandro smiles, shakes his head, and insists that things aren’t as ritzy as they appear. Their house in North Park sold for more per square foot than this one cost them, he says.

“The further out you go, the more house you get for the money,” Sue says. “We looked at Glenview and Northbrook, and for the money you basically get a dump. For five to six hundred thousand dollars, you get a 1970s Brady Bunch fixer-upper. I was not about to do another rehab project.

“You can get a house in Vernon Hills for under $500,000,” she says. “It won’t be on a golf course, and it won’t have a pool, but it’s a newer construction, 1999 to 2005, three or four bedrooms, two to three bathrooms.”

The taxes are higher here than in Chicago, she says. “Taxes are insane, but it’s cheaper than having to pay for private school.”

I ask the Serras if there’s anything CPS could do to keep middle-class families. Sue says it should add more high schools with special programs for kids “who aren’t in the top 1 percent, but maybe they’re in the top 10 percent.”

She also thinks CPS needs to make its neighborhood high schools more attractive. “Let’s say there was a big plan to completely rehab Mather—to put an addition on it, and bring in new staff and a new principal, and introduce some kind of cool curriculum, some new style of learning. It would have made us think a lot harder about staying.”

Sandro’s not so sure. “In my mind, it always comes back to the home.” He says he means the home of the children who’d be his daughters’ classmates. “Do they have a good home environment?”

Sandro says he realizes that many parents on the south and west sides have children in schools far worse than Mather. “I’m so empathetic for those folks because they don’t deserve that,” he says. “Crime and poverty is higher in those areas. It’s a formula for disaster. I don’t see how you can function on the level of funding we have now.”

He thinks the city should increase taxes for its schools, and the state should also spend far more on education. He notes that Illinois ranks last nationally in school funding. “That’s an absolute atrocious joke,” he says.

Sue adds, “I do realize that a lot of people can’t afford to move. If you’re an hourly wage person or don’t have a steady job, you’re stuck. Most people at Peterson had absolutely no choice but to stay. You feel for their children, because it’s out of their control.”

The last moving truck left the Serras’ North Park home on June 21. Sue cried a lot the two nights before that. She felt “like someone had died.”

“We’ll never own a house like that again,” she says. “These new developments here have none of that character and charm. But it’s not about the house anymore—it’s about the schools and safety.”

Ryan Zoghlin and Melissa Moore found their new home in Wilmette to be a compromise over their Bucktown two-flat—but felt it was worth it for the sake of their kids' education.
Ryan Zoghlin and Melissa Moore found their new home in Wilmette to be a compromise over their Bucktown two-flat—but felt it was worth it for the sake of their kids’ education.Credit: Anjali Pinto

“I wanted to remove my kids from the continuing experiment.”

“This is not my pace—at all,” Ryan Zoghlin says wistfully.

Half-unpacked boxes are strewn throughout the first floor of the home that Ryan and his wife, Melissa Moore, are renting in Wilmette. It’s a weekday evening, two days after Labor Day. Ryan’s telling me about the tempo of the neighborhood, to which he and Melissa and their 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter moved six weeks ago, from Cortland Street in Bucktown.

“I’m used to walking outside and seeing all my neighbors and talking with them,” Ryan says. “Bucktown is a vibrant neighborhood, and this is a little sleepy. I keep saying that I feel like I’m on vacation, that I’m in a cabin in Michigan or something.”

The kitchen and bathrooms in this three-bedroom bungalow were recently rehabbed, and there are hardwood floors and a fireplace. But “as much as we want to make it our home, it doesn’t feel like our home,” Melissa says—because they’re renting. And they have less space than they had in their place in Bucktown.

Both their children had attended only Chicago public schools before this school year. In June their son, Ingram, graduated from Burley elementary, and their daughter, Lulu, finished Decatur Classical, a K-6. Ryan and Melissa didn’t like the CPS options for either child, which is why they decided to move, even though it meant leaving Bucktown. “We bragged about our community and how great it was,” Melissa says. She was “devastated” when it sunk in that they were leaving.

Ryan, 46, a fine-art photographer, knows Wilmette well: he grew up here and is a product of Wilmette elementary and middle schools, and prestigious New Trier High in nearby Winnetka. Ingram is now a New Trier freshman, and Lulu is in seventh grade at Wilmette Junior High.

Melissa, 48, is head of user experience for Orbitz, the online travel agency. She grew up in Miami and attended public schools there.

Ryan moved to Bucktown in 1988 and Melissa in 1991. Shortly after Ingram was born in 1999, they bought a two-flat on Cortland Street between Hoyne and Leavitt. They never rented out either flat; they lived in both, and Ryan had a studio and darkroom in the basement.

“We didn’t know if we were going to stay, but we fell in love with the neighborhood,” Melissa says. There were lots of kids, and the community was racially diverse and close-knit. “People really looked out for each other,” she says. If she and Ryan were going out for an evening, they didn’t have to hire a babysitter—they could rely on neighbors.

The neighborhood school, Pulaski, was just two blocks from their home. When Ingram was old enough for preschool, Melissa also visited Burley elementary, a school two miles away, in Lakeview at Ashland and Barry. Burley was a neighborhood school but it had a magnet component. The Burley principal gave her a tour and was very welcoming. “I don’t know what it was, but I thought, ‘This is where we should go,'” Melissa says.

Burley was predominantly Hispanic when Ingram started going there. But the composition of the Lakeview neighborhood changed, and Burley’s composition changed along with it. By last year, the percentage of white students had more than doubled since 2003 (to 56 percent), and there were fewer than half as many Hispanics (28 percent). Only 20 percent of Burley’s students last year were low-income, the 16th-lowest proportion among Chicago’s 681 public schools. The school’s standardized test scores when Ingram started at Burley were “nothing to write home about,” Melissa says, but by last year they were far above national averages.

Ingram’s kindergarten teacher at Burley impressed Ryan, who volunteered in the classroom occasionally. He recalls telling Melissa, “I don’t know how he could ever have a better teacher.” A year later, that kindergarten teacher won a Golden Apple. Ingram “continued to have incredible teachers,” Ryan says. “The Burley teachers are the kind who put their arm around you, as opposed to the ones who shake their finger in your face.”

Lulu went to preschool and kindergarten at Burley. She was verbally precocious, and Melissa worried that as good a school as Burley was, Lulu wouldn’t be adequately challenged. Her kindergarten teacher suggested that Ryan and Melissa consider gifted schools for her. Lulu took a test for a couple of selective schools and got into Decatur, on the far-north side. After Lulu was accepted, Melissa googled Decatur and read that it was the top-rated elementary school in the state. “I thought I’d won the lottery,” she says.

Last year only 14 percent of Decatur’s students were low-income—fourth lowest in the city. Forty percent of the students were white, 23 percent Asian, 17 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent black. The school’s test scores have been stunning. Last year, and the year before, 100 percent of Decatur’s students met or exceeded state standards.

Melissa and Ryan say Lulu liked Decatur and was challenged there, but in retrospect they wish they’d kept her at Burley. Students came to Decatur from across the city, which made it hard to feel part of a community, Melissa and Ryan say. And getting Lulu there was a grind. Decatur was seven miles away, at Sacramento near Touhy. Ryan drove her the first year, and carpooled with other Decatur families after that.

The trip to Decatur and back took an hour and 20 minutes. “I could be halfway to Milwaukee, and I’m just driving down Western to get my kid to school,” Ryan says. Many of their friends were also driving their children to special schools, which struck him as wasteful. “We’re all in our cars with the kids, going this way, that way. I joked that we all pass each other at Irving Park at 7:30 in the morning. If your kids could walk to the neighborhood school, imagine how much easier the morning drive would be for the people who actually have to go to work.”

As Ingram and Lulu neared their last years at Burley and Decatur, Ryan and Melissa thought more and more about what schools they were headed to.

The neighborhood high school was Clemente, at Division and Western. Last year Clemente’s enrollment was 95 percent low-income. The student body was 67 percent Hispanic, 30 percent black, and 1.4 percent white. Its students performed far below average on standardized tests, and its graduation rate was below the CPS average. Ryan and Melissa had heard it was unsafe. They never considered it for Ingram.

Ingram took the entrance exam at Lane Tech, a selective-enrollment school, but didn’t win a spot. “Five years ago, maybe he would have, but it’s gotten so much more competitive,” Ryan says. And the tier system “crushed us,” he adds. (Last year 12,946 students applied to Lane and 895 were accepted.)

Ingram did get into Lake View, which had a STEM program (science, technology, engineering, and math). But there was Lulu to think about as well. She applied to about 15 magnet schools, a handful of schools with International Baccalaureate programs, and to Whitney Young and Lane, which had middle school programs that guaranteed acceptance to their high schools.

Acceptance letters arrive during spring break. Lulu didn’t get one. Ryan and Melissa say that was true of 40 percent of the sixth graders at Decatur. “It’s devastating for the kids” who don’t get accepted, Melissa says. When students return from the break, “everyone talks about where they got in.”

“All of a sudden, you feel dumb,” Ryan says. “We realized quickly how heavy it was weighing on the kids.

“I never assumed it would come to this,” he says. “I figured Lulu wouldn’t be a concern, we’ll have tons of options. In reality, she had zero options, except our neighborhood school.”

Melissa and Ryan registered Lulu for Pulaski, the neighborhood school. But they knew that in less than two years, she’d have to apply for high school. Melissa was determined not to put her through the “lunacy and cruelty” of the application process again, she says.

On later rounds Lulu got accepted to a couple of gifted and magnet schools. By then, however, Lake View’s principal had said in a news story that because of budget cuts, she was uncertain how long Lake View would be able to keep its STEM program. “I wanted to remove my kids from the continuing experiment,” Melissa says. She and Ryan decided to move.

They picked Wilmette because Ryan has siblings here, and Ingram and Lulu have cousins. “We figured it’d be a softer landing for the kids,” Ryan says. If his family weren’t here, they might have picked a different suburb, he says, because the move to Wilmette has been “quite a stretch” for them financially.

They decided to rent this home, and rent out their Bucktown two-flat instead of selling it, so they’ll have the option of returning to Chicago after their kids finish high school. But the two-flat needed painting and its floors needed sanding before it could be rented, and for a couple of months Ryan and Melissa were paying their mortgage as well as rent with no rent coming in.

“I really wanted my kids to have a diverse education,” Ryan says. “I wanted their education to be about more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. I wanted them to learn to live with different people and be well-rounded.”

Instead of attending a high school in which 95 percent of the students are low-income (their neighborhood school in Chicago, Clemente), Ingram is in a school in which 2.6 percent of the students are low-income. The student body at New Trier’s freshman campus in Northfield is 84 percent white, 10 percent Asian, 5 percent Hispanic, and .6 percent black. The demographics are similar for grades ten through 12 at the campus in adjacent Winnetka, and at Wilmette Junior High, where Lulu is enrolled.

“We don’t want our kids to think that the affluence they’re going to be exposed to here is normal,” Melissa says. But she thinks her children will retain what they learned from their diverse elementary schools—and that because of their early experience, they’ll always be comfortable with people of other races and incomes.

Ingram and Lulu are going to schools with phenomenal standardized test scores. Nearly all of the students at both schools meet or exceed state standards. New Trier has long been regarded one of the nation’s top high schools.

Melissa says Wilmette school officials put the family “through the wringer” about proving its residency. She submitted required documents, and the next day was asked for more. “We hadn’t even signed the lease, so I didn’t have any bills. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m coming off like I’m trying to hoodwink them.’ We felt we were guilty until proven innocent.”

The children take buses to school, and Ryan is glad he no longer has to drive Lulu. But now he has to drive or take the Metra to his studio in their Bucktown building. “I used to just walk down the stairs,” he says. Melissa works in the Ogilvie Transportation Center downtown, so the commute hasn’t become much harder for her—she’s near the Metra, which takes her right there.

Ryan misses Bucktown’s restaurants. “You could walk in any direction and get a great meal,” he says. “We were in the middle of everything.” Melissa misses her morning jog with her Bucktown friends.

“But there’s something cathartic about new experiences,” she says. And she’s delighted that she doesn’t have to worry much anymore about her children’s safety. In Bucktown, she and Ryan were hesitant to let Lulu walk to the corner store. Crime wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t rare, either, the way it is in Wilmette. “Now they jump on their bikes, go to the pool, to the beach,” Melissa says. “They definitely have a newfound freedom. So it wasn’t just the schools.”

“For my kids, I’m ecstatic,” Ryan says. He gestures toward Melissa. “She said that when she walked into Wilmette Junior High, she almost cried.”

Melissa says that’s because Lulu’s new school has a gym and a cafeteria. Decatur had neither. “Twice a week, they’d rent the JCC so they could have PE. Now my daughter has music, art, and PE every single day.”

“We really wanted to stay,” Ryan says. “I feel like we fought all these years. We fought to keep Burley a decent school—we donated money whenever we could to keep it going at a level we were comfortable with.” He also donated artwork to help raise money.

Parents at both Burley and Decatur did a lot of fund-raising, which Ryan and Melissa say helped compensate for the frequent cuts Chicago schools have sustained in recent years. Melissa says such fund-raising at the city’s selective-enrollment schools, and many magnets, is only one advantage those schools have. “They cherry-pick their students and they’re better funded,” Melissa says. She says it’s unfair to the neighborhood schools.

“There just isn’t enough to go around,” Ryan says. He thinks CPS needs to improve its neighborhood schools if it wants to keep more middle-class families. “They made the schools compete against each other for brainpower,” he says. “The gifted program, I don’t know if it’s a positive or a negative. You take the good kids out, and you leave the kids who have difficulties. Taking those peers away is a detriment to the kids who have problems.”

They both realize that the same thing happens when families like theirs leave the city.

“I feel guilt on a number of levels,” Melissa says. “Guilty that maybe we waited too long—and guilty for leaving, and not fighting to make CPS better. But you only have one chance for your kids’ education.”

Jackie Strapp suggested to her husband, Johnny (not pictured; he got called away to work), that the family ditch Chicago for Aurora to ensure better opportunities for their daughters.
Jackie Strapp suggested to her husband, Johnny (not pictured; he got called away to work), that the family ditch Chicago for Aurora to ensure better opportunities for their daughters.Credit: Anjali Pinto

“I’ll place my children’s safety over me trying to help everyone’s child overall.”

“I miss my friends,” Jackie Strapp is telling me one evening in early September. We’re in the living room of the Aurora home she and her family began renting this summer. Most of her friends live in the city, she says. “They’re like, ‘Jackie, we can’t hang out with you because you’re out in the boondocks.’ We can schedule something, but it’s not spur-of-the-moment, let’s go eat or let’s go shopping. That’s a struggle for me, but I think it’s way worth it.”

“I miss the hustle and bustle of the city,” her husband, Johnny Strapp, says. A recruiter for the National Guard, Johnny’s still in uniform; he just got home from work. “I like live music, and I have yet to find a club for that. Or maybe just a restaurant that has live music.” But he’s pleased about the move anyway, he says, because of how he thinks it will benefit his kids.

In June, Jackie and Johnny and their two young daughters moved from east Rogers Park to this two-bedroom brick duplex in a new Aurora subdivision 35 miles west of Chicago.

Their younger daughter, Maliah, who turns one this month, is slowly circling a coffee table while eyeing the stranger talking with her parents. She just began walking. Her four-year-old sister, Taylor, is upstairs watching TV.

The Strapps had been living in an apartment near Sheridan and Fargo, but the place had gotten cramped after Maliah was born. Taylor won’t start school until next year, but Jackie and Johnny were thinking ahead. They decided to leave Chicago because they lacked confidence in its schools.

Johnny, 34, joined the National Guard right after he graduated high school 16 years ago; he wanted to see the world and have college paid for. He ended up doing more of the former: he’s been to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt. He got home from Egypt in May, and this summer began the recruiting job. He commutes to an armory in North Riverside, 25 miles from here. He’s also taking classes in psychological research at Triton College in River Grove.

Johnny and Jackie both grew up in predominantly black neighborhoods and attended public schools whose enrollments were mainly black and low-income.

Johnny’s from Austin, on the west side. He was raised by his mother; his father was mostly in jail. His mother first sent Johnny and his two brothers to a small Christian school. The school closed after Johnny finished seventh grade. Then he went to the neighborhood public school, May elementary. That was a “rude awakening,” he says. “In the private school they tell you, ‘We’re teaching you to be two grades ahead.’ Once you get to the public school, you realize they were telling the truth. I was extremely bored.”

At Austin high school, which he attended after May elementary, the atmosphere was “not conducive for a student who wants to learn,” he says. Police roamed the halls, but there were many gang fights anyway. “We were lucky we never had a shooting inside the school. But outside the doors, when that bell rang? There were definitely shots. We’d have to run back inside.”

Johnny’s mother and his grandmother, a math teacher at Austin, pushed him academically. But he felt unchallenged. “I definitely wasn’t the smartest kid,” he says. “There were a lot of intelligent kids who were just sitting there bored in class. You develop the habit of, ‘I don’t need to really study because I’ve got this down. I don’t need to do the homework, I can just take the test.'”

Jackie, 28, grew up in South Holland, a suburb south of Chicago. Her father was a pastor. She attended Thornridge High in neighboring Dolton. “I wouldn’t say it was as rough as Chicago schools, but it was pretty close,” Jackie says. “It had a real urban vibe.”

She remembers fondly the speech team she was on. It traveled to affluent suburbs for tournaments, and was her main exposure to people who weren’t African-American. She thinks it helped prepare her for college, where she was a distinct minority.

She attended Chicago’s North Park University, and had her own “rude awakening” there. She’d taken advanced classes at Thornridge, “so I was like, ‘Wow, I’m ready for this.’ And obviously I wasn’t.” At North Park, “I had to go to my teachers after class to be up to par with the rest of the students. What you thought was the top at Thornridge was not even the middle at a different school, I guess.”

She earned a degree in business, but ultimately decided she was more interested in psychology. She’s now taking classes in counseling two evenings a week at DePaul.

She worked as a counselor last year at Manley, a public high school on the west side, at Polk near Sacramento. The school has long been virtually all black, predominantly low-income, and far below average in academic performance. Jackie was dismayed to see that many of the girls at Manley were pregnant or already were mothers.

She mediated student conflicts in what was known as the Peace Room. She recalls students showing her knives they’d brought to school—knives they said they might use on others. “Of course I reported it,” she says, but it disturbed her “just to think that we had metal detectors and they’re still getting into the school with weapons.” Fights were common in the lunchroom and hallways. “We’re running, trying to break things up before people hurt each other. The teachers were getting into fights with the students.”

She tried unsuccessfully to start a speech team at Manley. She gave easy scripts to students to read to her when they tried out. Many of the students couldn’t get through them. “They were stumbling over simple words like ‘explain’ and ‘capital.’ I had to throw out everything and basically tell them, ‘Make up something for me, and just try to act it out.’

“But even when they were using their own words, they weren’t able to articulate themselves,” she continues. “They still couldn’t get across what they were trying to because they didn’t know the words. One of the students who tried out was a senior. “And I’m like, ‘You’re gonna be in the world, you’re gonna have interviews. How is this gonna work for you?'”

What she saw at Manley, and what she heard from Johnny about Austin high, made Jackie uneasy about the prospect of sending her own kids to a Chicago public school. She worried about their safety. She didn’t want her children’s peers to pull them down. “Who you’re around is a big part of how you identify yourself,” she says.

She also feared that her children might be “criticized or talked about” for being smart or knowledgeable—that they might feel “like they have to hide what they know.” Nor did she want her kids to think “they’re above anybody else.” Not all Chicago public schools were like Manley and Austin, she reminded herself, but she suspected that many of them were.

Johnny thinks there are some good public schools in Chicago, but that CPS generally doesn’t have high expectations for its students. At schools whose students aren’t doing well, “It’s like, ‘That’s all we really expect from you,'” he says. He thinks CPS students also have low expectations for themselves. “A lot of them say, ‘If all else fails, I can go to the military.’ They don’t realize there’s an entrance test.”

He and Jackie didn’t want their children going to schools in which most of the other students were from low-income families. “If you’re working two jobs just to make ends meet, you probably don’t have time to study with your child or even spend time with your child,” he says. “That’s what leads to all the violence and the gangs.”

The elementary school for their east Rogers Park neighborhood was Gale Math and Science Academy, on Jonquil Terrace near Ashland. Its enrollment last year was 96 percent low-income. It was 62 percent black and 24 percent Hispanic. Gale students performed far below state and national averages academically.

It was Jackie who pushed for the move out of Chicago. She has an aunt who lives in Naperville and so was familiar with and liked the area. While looking online for apartments in that general vicinity they came across the duplex in Aurora.

The Strapps are now in the school district of Batavia, a suburb just south of Aurora. Only 13 percent of the students in the district are low-income. The enrollment last year was 82 percent white, 9 percent Hispanic, 4 percent black, and 3 percent Asian.

It’s important to Jackie that her children have racially diverse classmates. “A lot of people are shocked once they get out of high school, and they’re not in their little bubble anymore,” she says. “They have to make conversation and be friends with people they aren’t used to. I want it to be natural for my children.”

She worried that Johnny would find the pace too slow in Aurora. “But we fell into a groove,” she says. “He found a chess club. We got a gym.”

Johnny’s happy about the move for several reasons. The duplex is spacious, especially compared with their previous apartment. He’s more confident about his kids’ schooling “knowing that the other parents are involved and care. You know they care because a lot of them are paying high taxes to be in these schools.”

And he says he won’t have to worry about his children’s safety, in school and out, as much as he would have in Chicago. It already feels safer, he says. “You don’t have people yelling. You don’t have suspicious people walking up and down the street.”

Jackie adds, “I feel I can put my kids in the stroller and walk around.”

Soon after they moved here, there was a shooting at a park in Rogers Park that she used to go to with the kids. It convinced her they’d done the right thing.

Johnny says CPS needs to have higher standards for its students if it hopes to keep more middle-class families. “The focus seems to be, ‘Get ’em out the door, get the next batch in.’ They’re gonna teach you essentially how to work at Subway—not that there’s anything bad about the people who work there, but it’s not really a career choice. That’s where it seems the bar is set: ‘We’ll teach you the minimum, to get you a minimum-wage job.'”

Jackie thinks more has to be done to ensure the safety of CPS children. “The kids are exposed to a lot of things they shouldn’t be exposed to,” she says. “It comes to school with them. How do we address the kids that are selling drugs on the street and then bringing that in the school? The kids that are in gangs on the street, and it comes in the school? How do we make it so students don’t have to choose sides?

“It’s going to take years to fix,” she says, “and I don’t want my children to be there for the experimentation. They need to be educated now.”

She says she felt a little guilty moving—like she was running from a problem others couldn’t afford to escape. But Johnny “makes a big sacrifice already” by being in the military, she says. And when it comes to the choice of schools, their children will come first. “As much as I would love to be a trailblazer, it’s not what I can do right now.”

Johnny nods. “Are we shucking the responsibility? Probably,” he says. “But I’ll place my children’s safety over me trying to help everyone’s child overall. My child comes first. Everyone else is a very distant second.”

Jillian Sandler and Mac Irvine helped research this story.

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that Johnny Strapp misses “live” music, not “loud” music in Aurora. We also originally referred to the principal of Lake View High School as a “he” and not a “she”. We regret the errors..