When Melody Roberts moved from Hyde Park, on the South Side of Chicago, to the north shore suburb of Wilmette with her son Jason Pereira,16, she said there were a number of theories floating around the neighborhood: One was she was secretly getting divorced from her husband of 27 years. Another theory was she just wasn’t fond of the Hyde Park neighborhood anymore; another was her son didn’t fit in at Kenwood Academy High School.
None of that was true, she said. She moved to an apartment in the northern suburb to enroll her child in New Trier Township High School in Winnetka. Her husband maintains their original apartment in Hyde Park, but the family is maintaining another household during the week so Jason can partake of the theater/film curricula that New Trier provides. Roberts recalls her son providing her insight into his college-prep plans this past spring. With plans to perform after college, he told her that he needed an education that aided with monologues and building portfolios to get into the kind of college that he was interested in – “not straight A’s in AP classes.”
“And darned if he wasn’t right,” Roberts said. “I realized for him to get where he needed to go, something needed to change so that he could get access to the right training and curriculum. We both have to check our sanity to be renting an extra apartment – it is like paying tuition at the end of the day to rent a small, two-bedroom apartment for a year. Those are nontrivial costs for most people and for me, too. It’s a leap of faith that I can sustain this, but I decided we’re going to make a real move and go to a high school that’s been teaching theater and film for decades and that has a long track record of its high school graduates going into the business. And it’s still public, so all I have to do is get an apartment, a catchment and we keep going. So that’s what we did.”
As the daughter of a public school teacher, Roberts admits that her No. 1 concern is educating her kids. Her eldest, Adele, started school in Naperville when the family first moved to the Chicago area 13 years ago. The family opted out of the schools in that area for the Ancona School in Kenwood, the Chicago neighborhood just north of Hyde Park. “It wasn’t the district, it wasn’t the neighborhood, it wasn’t the reputation – it was literally a friend telling me that that school and my kid would be a good match.”
And it was, Roberts said. Adele, now a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta, flourished at Ancona and then went on to flourish at Kenwood Academy High School, Roberts said.
Roberts’ family is not alone in education being a top priority. With academic competition increasing, parents and future parents are choosing homes based on which school their children will be placed in. A study last year by Realtor.com found 78% of buyers in their preferred school district gave up home features to get there and nearly three-quarters of respondents say good schools were important to their search. In response to this, developers are prioritizing school over amenities like gyms, 24-hour doormen, etc.
Jerry Karlik, principal of New York-based JK Equities LLC is one such developer with 1400 West Monroe, a 42-unit, seven-story condo building in Chicago’s West Loop, across from a park with athletic fields, trails and a playground. The property has 1,200- to 2,000-square-foot spaces that come in two- and three-bedroom layouts. Pricing ranges from $600,000 to $1.4 million. But the main selling point, Karlik attests, is the walking distance to Skinner West Elementary School and Whitney Young Magnet High School, which students must test into.
“We don’t need all the bells and whistles in this building,” Karlik said. “We made a very skinny amenity building because we think that you can get those amenities in the neighborhood – a gym, a spa. If you want to live in a fancy building with a doorman and a lot of these amenities, you’re going to pay up. What we wanted to do is make this into an affordable product. Our target audience is folks who want to be in this school district.”
Jennifer and Leo Greca considered the school the big selling point for their new family. The couple is waiting more than a year to move into a three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath condo at 1400 West Monroe in early 2021 so their newborn son, Clark, can enjoy Skinner West Elementary School when he comes of age. The portfolio manager and software engineer are renting in River West until then.
The couple was thinking of moving into a single-family home in Ukrainian Village, but according to Jennifer, she was more comfortable with Skinner West’s rating now than hoping the school in Ukrainian Village would get better.
“The school was the big thing because the place where we were looking to buy we were going to have to put Clark in private school and you’re spending so much money, why do you want to spend it on private school as well?” she said. “When you’re looking around at all these neighborhoods, maybe you like the neighborhood, but many where the schools were just OK. And being across the street from a school and a park, it couldn’t make it any better for us. We’re crammed in tight quarters for the next year, but in the end it’s worth it because of the location of 1400 West Monroe and Skinner.”
Roberts and Pereira will continue to come back to their Hyde Park apartment to do laundry, and get a week’s worth of home-cooked meals from her husband to take back to Wilmette.
“We’re kind of like college students: We come home, get food, do the laundry and go back,” Roberts said laughing. She doesn’t think their scenario is a big deal. Her son is flourishing and that’s what it’s all about.
“I suspect that many of my friends think that I’m overthinking it,” she said. “But research shows that by the time children reach their teens, their social context is what dictates their mental and physical health and sets them up for success later, so the environment that you put your kid in all day, every day is the single most important decision you’re making for their well-being. If they’re motivated by what they’re learning and if they feel comfortable in the environment that they’re in – comfortable meaning respected and supported – that kind of comfort, then you get good results.”