Why your child’s best bet is a neighborhood public school

Look past test scores and consider how a local school can mean a happier and healthier childhood.

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Second-graders at Mason Elementary School on the Southwest Side.

Second-graders at Mason Elementary School on the Southwest Side.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, parents of prospective Chicago Public Schools students may be considering where to enroll their children in school this fall.

Let me be one voice that says: Choose your neighborhood school.

I am a developmental psychologist who studies how people flourish in educational environments. And while parents these days put in a lot of work to find that perfect school fit, I believe most of them don’t think broadly enough.

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To really grasp the gifts of a neighborhood school, you have to look beyond the traditional markers that we typically consider in this age of accountability, like test scores and attendance, and think more holistically about what a happy, healthy childhood looks like.

For example, choosing a neighborhood schoolgives kids more time. A drive to take them to a school elsewhere requires a big chunk of a parent’s day. A 30-minute drive to school might seem reasonable, but that adds up to one hour a day, then 5 hours a week, then 20 hours a month. Those are hours your child could be sleeping, playing, pursuing hobbies, or simply being with family — all activities we know are really good for kids.

A non-neighborhood school would have to be far “better,” by traditional measures, for me to justify trading away that kind of time.

Being close to your neighborhood school also meansyou can walk, which builds exercise and fresh air into your daily routine. Psychologists have good evidence that both exercise and time spent outdoors (even in miserable winter weather) makes us happier and improves performance on academic tasks. Walking is also the best environmental choice, something to consider if you want to thinkreallybroadly about what is best for your children, and their children, over the long term.

Finally,investing in your neighborhood school builds community. If you have more than one child, they can all attend the same school, no questions asked. It’s also generally easier for parents to take part in events and volunteer opportunities, simply because the school is close.

Most importantly, investing in a local school connects you to the place where you live. Kids thrive when they are embedded in a web of adults who know who they are. After enrolling our child in our neighborhood school, our lives started to look like “Sesame Street,” with a fellow parent or classmate around every corner. It gives our entire family a deep sense of belonging in the place we’ve decided to call home.

There’s one qualification to all of this. If you enroll in your neighborhood school, enroll with the commitment to learn from the community that is already there, especially if you are a white parent and the neighborhood school is made up largely of children of color, whose families have already worked to make the school what it is.

For example, our neighborhood school has served mostly Latino students for many years and now has a “Friends of” group — made up almost entirely of middle-class white parents. It takes an intentional effort to build cultural bridges and learn from the families that invested in this place long before we did.

That, too, though, is ultimately another reason I love our school. Our family is living out, every day, questions like: How do we connect with people who come from different backgrounds? What do we want our community to be like? How do we want to live?

As parents choose a school, I encourage them to ask some big questions too. Howdoyou want to live? What does a good childhood look like? What social, emotional, and physical aspects of life does our achievement-obsessed education policy landscape neglect? How can you get some of that time, space, and community back?

The answer might be just a couple of blocks away.

Brady K. Jones is an assistant professor of psychology at University of St. Francis in Joliet.

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