What a roller coaster ride these last few months have been for Chicago parents. First, we explored the school options out there for our little ones (private, neighborhood, tuition-based, magnet, open enrollment, classical, gifted. You know the rest, need we really continue?). Then we applied -- and toured, interviewed and play-dated -- and finally, we awaited the answer: which schools "want" our children? The whole process is enough to bring out the tiger (Tiger Mom, that is) in even the mellowest of parents.
It seems every parent we run into lately has the same tight smile and anxious eyes, asking that loaded question, "Did you hear anything?" Or, for the lucky few who got an acceptance letter, there's the honorable attempt to hide the feeling of tremendous accomplishment they feel while consoling the less fortunate parents saying, "Don't worry. I'm sure it will all work out."
No matter how much you tell yourself it doesn't matter, when anything but an acceptance letter arrives, your first desperate thought is: What now?
Looking around, parents are employing a wide variety of strategies to get their children the best education possible. The first is "Knock 'Em Dead", which involves preparing children under five for the city's gifted and honors programs. Visit the city's preschools, and you'll be surprised by how many four-year-olds are reading. Yes, reading. Is this what's best for our kids? Look at Finland -- their children don't learn to read until seven, but they later run circles around us academically. There is a fear that we're pushing our kids too much, too early but, considering our options, do we have any other choice?
Another popular strategy likely to be employed by parents is what we call: "Get Out of the City." But for many moms and dads who love the culture and diversity here, Chicago is home. For others, a house in the 'burbs is just not financially feasible. Either way, losing families to the suburbs due to schooling issues creates a drain on the energy, creativity and resources -- financial and otherwise -- that parents with young children have to offer. Is a city without families a place where you'd want to live?
So parents decide to stay, and that's when the strategy we like to call "Panic" sets in. You contact every person in your Smartphone, every Facebook friend and Twitter follower to see if someone happens to know someone of influence at some school. Next, your brain fast forwards 14 years, and the cold fear sets in that your child won't get into a good college, won't get the right job (now you're mind races ahead about 18 years), and will probably be living at home, with you, forever.
How about a new strategy called "Stay and Thrive"? In this scenario, Mayor Emanuel sets education at the top of his administration's agenda and we, as parents, figure out how to be meaningfully and positively involved in securing our children's futures. In the time you can say 'great SAT scores', we can tick off the names of dozens of parents with degrees in education, psychology, technology, health, public policy, etc. who would contribute their time to make the Chicago school system the best in the country. Use us, Mayor Emanuel, and keep us here so we can build the next generation of Chicago.
And for those of you fretting about where your child will be for kindergarten, take heart. As Families in the Loop's Education Expert Mandee Polonsky says, "Children are already set up for a great foundation when they have parents who clearly care deeply about their education." Although it may not feel like it now, we're not the first ones to be going through this. Just think: compared to pre-school, those college apps will be a breeze!
To get more specific information on your family's education options, check out Mandee's advice at familiesintheloop.com.
Wendy Widom is CEO of Familes in the Loop (FITL), Chicago's hippest hub for parents and kids.
See more of Wendy 's stories here.