Their Own Private Renaissance 2010

School reformers at CPS and elsewhere aren't the only ones who think that it's sometimes easier to create a new school than to revamp an existing one. 

This story from last month in Crain's tells how one downtown couple decided to start their own private school when public and existing private options didn't suit their needs.

Could others be far behind?

"A Free Market Solution?

The plan: Provide funding and change zoning laws to make it easier for more private schools to open in Chicago.

The players: Educational entrepreneurs, banks, philanthropists, city government.

potential problems Persuading banks to give educational entrepreneurs a
break, and motivating the City Council to change zoning laws.

Phillip Jackson and his wife, Linda, moved to River West four years
ago, they fell in love with downtown living. They liked the shops, the
restaurants and the cultural venues.

Just one problem: They didn't like the Chicago public schools,
and the waiting lists for the private alternatives were miles long. So
in a few years, when their 1-year-old son would turn 5, where would
they send him?

Their answer: Mr. Jackson, a longtime educator, would open his own elementary school.

2004, he left his job as executive director of the Cove School, a
private school in Northbrook where he had worked for 16 years, and
began working on what would become the Chicago Grammar School, located
in River North, just eight blocks from his home.

two other teachers and 11 preschoolers and kindergarteners (including
Mr. Jackson's now 5-year-old son, Phillip) the school opened last fall.
But getting there wasn't easy.

aren't many models to follow on how to start an independent school,''
says Mr. Jackson, 48, who used $250,000 of his own money and got a
$200,000 small business loan. ``But it was worth the effort and
expense, because there was a need for a private school in downtown


Jackson's experience underscores a problem commiserated over at
cocktail parties by countless parents who wouldn't flee to the suburbs
if there were more independent schools-and if the existing ones weren't
so expensive. The booming real estate market has created pent-up demand
from families for whom the public, parochial and elite private
schools-the Francis W. Parker School, the Latin School of Chicago and
the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools-aren't viable options.

Today, Chicago's 15 private schools have about 7,900 students, just 1.8% of the city's school-age children. By comparison, the Chicago Public Schools has nearly 427,000 students in 613 schools. Why the lack of private options?

Two reasons: lack of funding and lack of space.

upfront costs of opening a school are enormous; as much as $500,000 is
needed for everything from insurance, rent and teachers' salaries to
furniture, supplies and marketing. Even when you have the money, then
it's a matter of finding property big enough to accommodate a school
and meeting strict building codes. Nearly $300,000 of Mr. Jackson's
start-up capital went to renovations to meet safety requirements and to
the architects and lawyers who helped him find the space.

one solution

such fundamental barriers, it's no wonder entrepreneurs aren't
clamoring to open private schools. So how do we make it easier?

starters, banks need to help more educational entrepreneurs get their
hands on start-up capital. That could be a matter of local banks, in
the spirit of good corporate citizenship, deciding to offer special
loan programs for educational entrepreneurs with better rates and more
flexible terms. Or more likely, it could mean helping clients apply for
a loan administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Such
loans have better terms than traditional loans.

options exist. It's a matter of educational entrepreneurs finding a
banker who believes in their mission,'' says Adnan Assad, the
commercial loan officer for Banco Popular North America in Chicago, who
helped Mr. Jackson procure a $200,000 SBA loan with a six-year term and
8% interest rate. Banco Popular is an SBA preferred lender, but a bank
doesn't have to be one to help a client apply for an SBA loan.

is the first loan we've done for a new private school, and we granted
it to Mr. Jackson because we believe in his business plan,'' Mr. Assad
says. ``Our own homework showed us there's a demand for more private
schools in Chicago.''

yet another

then there's zoning. It took Mr. Jackson one month and $16,000 to get a
variance from the city's Zoning Board to allow him to open a school in
an area zoned for commercial use-the bulk of which went to the lawyers
who prepared the paperwork and set up the meeting with the city.

financial burden could be easily eliminated if the City Council changed
the law so that entrepreneurs wouldn't need a variance to build schools
in downtown commercial areas in and around the Loop, where new condo,
townhome and loft developments have attracted families like the
Jacksons. Schools can already be built in residential-zoned areas
without a variance.

``We now have people
living in areas that weren't zoned residential, and there's no obvious
place to put a school,'' says Bernard Citron, a commercial real estate
and land use lawyer with Schain Burney Ross & Citron Ltd. and a
Chicago native who moved his family to Vernon Hills 16 years ago when
his children reached school age.

To change
the law, entrepreneurs need to lobby their alderman or petition the
city directly to have the City Council make schools a ``permitted use''
in these commercial areas. Such an amendment would eliminate the need
to petition the Zoning Board for an exception-and the legal fees that
go with it.

Of course finding more money,
and more space, can't fix everything for hopeful private school
entrepreneurs. But it's a good place to start.

Art Credit: Chicago Grammar School co-founder and teacher Phillip
Jackson (left) works on a writing project with several students. The
independent elementary school in River North, which opened last fall
with 11 preschoolers and kindergarteners, takes a different approach to
education. * Instructor Linda Jackson (left) helps her student - who's
also her 5-year-old son - build Santa's Village."

Posted in Crain's January 2006


Filed under: The World Outside CPS

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