Expensive Private Schools Grow in Chicago

Colored Pencils
David Blaikie / Flickr
Colored Pencils
David Blaikie / Flickr

Expensive Private Schools Grow in Chicago

It’s no secret that Chicago has seen a drop in the number of school-aged children over the past two decades.
That’s led to hundreds of public and parochial schools closing. 
But in the last few years, another kind of school is opening -- schools that charge college prices for a K-12 education. 
Didi Lewis helps families untangle the web of school options every year in her role as the school choice manager for the Neighborhood Parents Network. She said she’s noticed a trend in recent years.
“There are the parents who want to stay in the city and want to make a go of it and don’t want schools to be the reason they leave,” Lewis said. It’s an age-old dilemma, but one that has reversed in some parts of Chicago.
Census data shows that the percentage of extremely poor and working class families in the city has dropped in the last decade. On the other end of the spectrum, those making six-figures or more has grown. 
Of all families in the city, those making $200,000 or more grew the most. Those families made up just 3 percent of Chicago families in 2005. Now, they make up 8 percent. (The trend holds true statewide, though the changes are less pronounced.)
Most families can only afford public schools and of course, many upper middle class and wealthy families do still chose public options. As a graduate of Chicago Public Schools, Lewis said she always tells parents to check out their local public school. 

New, expensive schools

Now, there’s a handful of new private schools wooing upper-middle-class families -- GEMS World Academy, Bennett Day School just opened, Fusion Academy and AltSchool plan to open in the coming years, while The British School and Lycee Francais have expanded. These new expensive private schools are adding another layer to the school landscape of the city.
Cameron Smith is the founder of one of those new options. He opened Bennett Day School with a former teacher from Francis Parker named Kate Cicchelli. The school has preschool, kindergarten and first grade this year, but will expand one grade each year until 2020. 
Bennett teachers are using a Montessori-like approach to education, called Reggio Emilia. The school also has a TinkerLab - a Silicon Valley trend that emerged from the Maker movement that believes people should be creators, not consumers.
On a Saturday this fall, Smith spoke with WBEZ during a free Tinkerthon event with one of the founding board members of the San Francisco-based Tinkering School.
Smith said Chicago is booming with people hungry for Bennett’s kind of innovative approach to school. 
“What’s happening in the city is really exciting, with companies like Boeing and Conagra moving their headquarters… and all the great things happening at 1871,” Smith said. “We’re on Fulton just a block east of Halsted and there are six co-working spaces within four blocks of us.”

Wooing tech companies

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed to get more businesses to put down roots in the city, especially entrepreneurial tech companies like Google, Groupon, and Yelp
Smith said he thinks the mayor is missing a piece: Where will the employees of those companies send their kids to school? What kind of education do they want?
“In my day job, I was an investor in education companies and so I was learning about educational approach during the day, all the time,” Smith said. “There was this idea for a school that I had for my kids that I’m not seeing that takes it as far as I like.”
Smith grew up in Michigan -- a suburb of Detroit -- and went to the public schools there. When his first son was born, like many parents, he found himself overwhelmed with the “alphabet soup” of education in the city. He toured many different schools -- neighborhood public schools, selective enrollment schools, parochial, Montessori, and the existing elite schools, like Francis Parker. 
“It just came to a point where my wife and I had a conversation and said, ‘I’ll quit my job in finance and we’ll start a school for my son and now sons,’ because we think there are other families like ours,” Smith said.
Tuition at Bennett starts at $17,500 and tops out at $24,500. Smith says the high price tag comes with something public schools can’t guarantee -- stability and peace of mind. 
“I wanted school to be focused on kids and the outcome of the kids and not necessarily be distracted by other things -- fundraising or the like,” Smith said. “I didn’t want that to be a burden on our parents to have some kind of additional monetary requirement on them beyond tuition.”
Bennett’s tuition is low compared to Fusion Academy -- a private, for-profit school looking to open three new locations this fall in Chicago and the suburbs. Full-time tuition is $40,000 a year, though students can choose to take just one or two classes at a time if, say, their school doesn’t offer it or they’re typically homeschooled, said Mike Van Dinther, head of business development for Fusion.
Van Dinther said Chicago is not alone. 
“There is growth in private school providers in many major cities in the country,” Van  Dinther said. “I don’t think it’s unique to Chicago. You’re also seeing it in New York, and in LA and San Francisco.”

Ripple effect?

It’s too early to say what -- if any -- impact these new expensive schools could have on the public schools in the city.
Richard Kahlenberg is a fellow at The Century Foundation who studies economic and racial integration in schools. 
He says families have a constitutional right to choose private schools and many will.  But policy-makers should keep an eye on the growth of these high-end schools.
“Our economy is becoming more and more stratified with wealthier people seceding from public institutions and that is to the detriment of all of us,” Kahlenberg said.  
Kahlenberg said public schools have to find ways to attract families who have options -- even the wealthiest in the city.
“If we continue to segment and segregate, then the original idea of the common school that brings children of all backgrounds together will be lost and that’ll be a real tragedy,” he said. 
Wooing the middle and upper class is not on the top of Chicago Public Schools’ priority list right now. The district is trying to fill a $480 million budget hole with a junk bond rating. 
Smith, the dad who founded Bennett Day School, said he doesn’t see his school as hurting public schools. If anything, he said he hopes they can share some of their ideas and innovations with other public and private schools.  
Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.