Monday, November 29, 2010

Lincoln Park, the Suburbs and High School

On Sunday, I went to dinner for the first time at John's Place in Lincoln Park. I knew only that it was kid-friendly and had to have good food because Melissa has spoken about it. Our party of 9 adults and 3 kids was there for a little over 2 hours. The magician and balloon-blower who came to provide entertainment to The Boy, The Girl and The Tot (Who Isn't) was able to get in some real humor with our audience. He had just blown up balloons for the two kids, two dads and a pregnant mom at an adjacent table. In our time at the restaurant, that table turned over twice while the rest or the restaurant stayed fairly empty. Both times, the table was populated by babies and toddlers and their REI-clad parents.

I remarked upon this with a bit of surprise to my closest urban tablemate, The Dad's cousin's fiancĂ©e. She was not surprised, telling me that the neighborhood comprises her peers (mid-30s) with their young children. In fact, she said, one of her friends with two kids used to live in the area until she'd outgrown her condo and moved to the suburbs. 

Ah, the suburbs. I've been a Chicago resident since 2002. This Thanksgiving is the 9th I've spent in this house. I joke to my husband that he'll have to drag me kicking and screaming to the suburbs. And yet.

There it is. Always. Looming over me. Although it did surprise me to learn that the average demographic of Lincoln Park is now essentially a rolled back version of me, what follows doesn't particularly surprise me: Grown-up Trixies and Chads get married, buy condos, have babies and flee to the suburbs. Where the grass is always green and the schools are always good. Or so I'm led to believe. 

Sociologically, I find this phenomenon interesting. I was raised in the suburbs by two former urbanites (NYC). The Dad was raised in the suburbs by one suburbanite and one rural Hoosier. My father (Grandpa Texas) spent my son's first three years trying to convince me that I'd want to move the suburbs. That I should want to move to the suburbs. But, to quote my friend Sonia, I just don't want to.

And I do wonder: what's wrong with me that I don't? After all, it is what people with means do. Among the women of my moms' group, who are all like me: educated women with the means for mobility, whether upward or outward, there are more of us who have moved outside the city than who have retained residency. 

At the moment, I think my reluctance to leave the city has much to do with both luck and a deeply ingrained stubborn streak. In 2008, The Boy won the CPS lottery, gaining admission into what is turning out to be a great public elementary school. By luck again, CPS changed the policy for sibling admissions and The Girl also attends the same great school. Luckily for me, The Dad talked me into a single-family house in what is a really great neighborhood, so I have a garage, patch of grass and three floors upon which we can scatter our stuff. 

The big unknown, of course, is high school. We're still five to six years away from the high school decision, but if time flows at the same rate as it has since 2003, it will be here before we know it. My biggest concern is academics: Will The Boy get into one of the six current selective-enrollment schools in the city? And whether he does or doesn't, how can we hold our schools accountable to meet a high academic standard? What is the formula in the suburbs that makes suburban schools regarded as universally better than Chicago public schools? And can we replicate it? Is there a way to solve the fundamental barriers to success for some CPS students?

The Dad's biggest concern in the high school picture is the social influence: how to keep The Boy out of trouble? Will we hurt our child's overall chances for success if we keep him in an urban school environment? Can you make a "good" kid bad? And how far are we willing to take the social experiment of trying to even the playing field when it comes to our own children's future success or failure, happiness or misery? 

The statistics about high school students' success released by the Chicago Public Schools are grim. These statistics report that only 30 of 100 H.S. freshmen will go on to enter college; only 6 will go to highly selective schools. They consider the University of Illinois one such highly selective school. Yikes! Twenty percent of my suburban high school went to the University of Illinois -- and most of us considered it "slumming it" because we weren't headed for an Ivy. These stats were drawn in part from a 2006 University of Chicago study that suggests that, once again, luck will be on our side in the high school and college admissions process. This reassures me on an academic level, but does nothing to relieve The Dad's concerns about the potential for bad influence.

And it doesn't discount that staying in the city surely promises a lot of work in our future. I'm not sure I have it in me to dig into turning around the local high school.

What about you? Are you planning to stay in the city for the long haul? Do you plan to move to the suburbs? Have you already moved to the suburbs? Do you think there's a way for CPS to turn it around? Are you involved in the CPS process at any level?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Transparency in Politics

On Monday, politicos--would-be and otherwise--kicked off the mayoral race by filing their petitions with the city. The Sun-Times reported that the mayoral race could "energize voters." 

I have to say: I am still in the period of dread. It's not that I fear change. God knows, I was looking forward to defeating Daley in February. But I surmise that the city's budget is a horrible mess. And I don't see how any politician is going to get us out of it. (And if s/he did, what would Ben Joravsky write about?) That these politicians think they can shows either incredible courage or incredible naivete. Perhaps both. 

I'm likely a campaign manager's nightmare because I don't watch live TV and I don't pay attention to the ads. But I stopped the TiVo to watch Emmanuel's ad tonight during Glee. My reaction: I'm tired of the platitudes already. I love Chicago (just ask The Dad, who'll have to drag me outta here kicking and screaming), but the past few years have opened my eyes to the realities of city politics and dealings. I think Chicago needs to focus its efforts on becoming a world-class city. Forget about losing our grip on a precarious hold. I don't think we can pat ourselves on the back yet, guys.

Throughout the tumultuous spring and early summer of budget crises, education cuts, union troubles, school-related challenges and a surprise visit from Ron Huberman, I believed that the great Chicago machine (which also controls CPS) was obfuscating budget and process from its citizens. At the time, I wanted more transparency and communication about what was going on. I still want that. But now I think one reason that few in official capacity are willing to Tweet as often as Kanye West or Kim Kardashian is that they realize that if they are forthcoming with information, everyone will know that they have no idea what the hell they are doing. That Emmanuel and Moseley-Braun want to take a stab at it reveals their courage.

Despite my current discomfort with lies ahead for Chicago, I'm an unfailing optimist. I am quite sure that my dread will turn to excitement in a couple of weeks after a few rounds of mudslinging between Moseley-Braun and Emmanuel (with a little comedic relief from the Rev. Meeks thrown in). A parent and activist just announced his aldermanic bid for the 39th ward; things are looking up already....

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Another post on writing

The problem with blogging and getting followers and really putting oneself out there is that every post feels like An Article. I can't just write an off-the-cuff diatribe. Even though that is what blogging is supposed to be about. The beauty of self-publishing on the Internet is that you can get your message out fast. The ugly of self-publishing on the Internet is that while bloggers sometimes masquerade as journalists (I have been guilty of this myself), they have even less credibility than journalists. And that reputation is rightfully deserved in many cases. There's a lot of garbage on the Internet, opinion dressed up as fact, live-blogging and recording and sharing in real time--churning out copy and content so fast after the experience--sometimes during the experience that it seems the most followed bloggers can barely enjoy the experience for the need to blast it out to the world. 

For the record, this isn't a slam on bloggers, having a following/fan base, or seeking (or achieving) fame and fortune through blogging. After all, as someone remarked about me recently, I am a writer, a blogger, a communicator. I almost feel compelled to share my knowledge and/or analysis with my friends and associates. Email and blogs are the perfect outlet for me to unleash my need to communicate with the world. 

However, I struggle with this need for information--reading it, analyzing it, disseminating it. Which is funny because I don't generally watch the news, and glean what's going on in the world from The Dad's Reddit links, education blogs and a once-weekly cruise through The New York Times app or NPR. Or calling my mother, who is as addicted to MSNBC as I am to writing about education, parenting, society norms and my children. 

As a writer, I am drawn to the need to share my story, my opinion, my analysis of a situation or event. Or maybe being a writer has nothing to do with it--maybe it's just because I'm opinionated. And have no editorial calendar. 

I'm also a big believer in transparency. Perhaps because I try to be transparent. While I recognize the right and importance of privacy in many things, I probably would exercise it less than I do now if I were not contractually obligated to keep a lid on it. But where is the line between transparency and oversharing? And should everyone know what I think as soon as I think it? Is there value in getting information out there as soon as it is known? Or is it better to take a page from Lane Smith's book* and just "shut your big yawp"? 

* John, Paul, George & Ben. I highly recommend it. It never fails to delight The Boy, The Girl and The Tot (who's no longer a tot). That particular quote pertains to Ben Franklin and his frequent dispensation of free advice.