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Neighborhood Schools: An Answer to Chicago's Supply and Demand Problem

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I live on a quiet, residential street with my wife and two young boys on the north side of Chicago. We've had an unseasonably warm winter and spring, and as a result the opportunities for neighborly sidewalk talks have come earlier than usual. While my neighborhood is lucky to have high performing public and Catholic schools nearby, families across the city are regrouping after receiving admissions decisions for Chicago Public Schools' selective enrollment seats. Recent talk has centered around educational opportunity and school choice. This year, Chicago Public Schools received over 30,000 applications for 4,200 seats at the city's top schools. Some families I know have received what has been called a "golden ticket" for one of those seats while others are contemplating a move to the suburbs after learning their child has not been admitted. Still others have opted out of the public school system altogether and have chosen to enroll their children in Chicago's large Catholic school system.

For the second year in a row, Catholic school enrollment in the city of Chicago has increased, bucking trends for Catholic schools nationally. Indeed, national headlines have extolled the more than 600 urban Catholic schools that have closed nationwide in the last decade as well as the decrease in Catholic school enrollment.

I am the Executive Director of Big Shoulders Fund, an independent non-profit organization founded twenty-five years ago to support Chicago's inner-city Catholic schools. We serve 93 schools and nearly 24,000 students. Sixty-two percent of our students are low income and nearly a third are not Catholic. Over the last three years, 90 percent of our scholarship students have enrolled in college -- ahead of city, state, and national averages. Big Shoulders Fund schools are directly contributing to the enrollment increase seen in Chicago's Catholic schools.

Just one example is found at St. Angela Elementary School, located in Chicago's Austin neighborhood on the far west side of Chicago. Eleven out of twelve nearby neighborhood public schools are on probation, according to their Chicago Public Schools' progress reports. Enrollment has increased a remarkable 83 percent over the last three years. Families with limited financial means -- 93 percent qualify for the Federal School Lunch Program -- are choosing a tuition-based education at St. Angela because of its high academic expectations and strong school community. Ninety-nine percent of the families are not Catholic, but they believe in the promise, and decades of results, of high quality Catholic education. Big Shoulders Fund steps in to support this choice through scholarships for students, professional development for teachers, and investment in bricks and mortar projects at the school. In turn, St. Angela achieves great outcomes, ensuring students are performing on average at grade level by seventh grade and that they go on to attend a college prep high school.

Just like the families on my street, the interests of parents from all socioeconomic backgrounds converge around the need for quality educational options in the city. As highlighted in a recent article in Crain's Chicago Business, more and more parents are considering staying in the city during these challenging economic times. While selective enrollment and high quality neighborhood and charter public schools are key to the fabric of our city, they clearly cannot meet the demand. Big Shoulders Fund and schools like St. Angela are an important piece of the education reform puzzle, making neighborhood Catholic schools a viable option for families with need. Catholic schools have served generations of families for hundreds of years, and we will continue to play an integral role in the city's educational landscape.

And so I urge Chicago's families, civic organizations and private donors to rededicate themselves to neighborhood schools -- Catholic and public alike. In doing so they will create a promising legacy for children and for our city's future workforce and economic development. Big Shoulders Fund promises to continue to do the same.