Coffee Chat with GROW High School Parents Amy Smolensky and Lauren DeJulio Bell
By Brady K. Jones
I am the mother of two very young children—two and four. As I commute to work or push them around our neighborhood in our huge double stroller, I often run into high school students from Lake View and Amundsen hanging out in parks, eating at restaurants, or walking to and from class. I am always curious about what the schools and students are like, and I know our own high school decisions will come more quickly than I can believe. I was thrilled, then, to have the opportunity to sit down recently with Amy Smolensky, a communications consultant, and Lauren DeJulio Bell, an instructor at UIC, to talk about their children’s experiences at our two GROW high schools.
The Journey to GROW Schools
Amy is the mother of Nathan and Leo, both Lake View students. Lauren is a mother of four, and her oldest son, Matthew, just started as a freshman at Amundsen. I asked the two to describe how their children chose these schools—what their journeys to Lake View and Amundsen were like.
Both parents explained that the choice to attend a GROW high school was a combination of parental guidance and their sons’ preferences. Both Amy and Lauren have experience in and commitment to neighborhood schools as well as hesitations about selective enrollment high schools. They shared these values in conversations with their kids—then they both stepped back. They gave their children a chance to visit high schools they were interested in, encouraged their children to consider what they wanted out of their high school experience, and let them make their own decisions.
They are thrilled with the choices Nathan, Leo, and Matthew have made. Both of Amy’s children chose Lake View, while Matthew opted for Amundsen. Amy and Lauren tout the warm, familial atmospheres of the schools, the emphasis on social/emotional growth, the experienced teachers, and the extra time their sons have with family and friends because they chose a neighborhood high school rather than one across the city.
“My boys aren’t spending hours commuting to and from school, which gives them more time in their day to spend with friends and family, get homework done, and to simply relax,” says Amy. “With practices and extracurriculars after school, I have much more peace of mind knowing they are only 10 minutes away and can be home by 5:30 or 6 p.m. instead of on a bus or train at 8 or 9.”
The two mothers also share a strong belief that neighborhood high schools can be top options. For both families, these neighborhood high schools were their first choice, not a Plan B. Amy explains, “CPS Elementary schools used to be considered subpar, but then parents started getting involved and the schools flourished. I’m a big believer that that didn’t happen by accident. We’re sort of at a time now where that’s bubbling up to high schools. Selective enrollment has become a really stressful process. It became an expectation that everyone had to go, and people didn’t feel like there were any alternatives. But we have really good alternatives. Most schools have really good things about them and downsides about them. But in general, high school is high school. I’ve always told my children, wherever you go, it’s what you make of it.”
Lauren adds that it is her strong belief that when parents invest in their neighborhood schools, they give their families a deep sense of community. She recounts, “My son could’ve gone to selective enrollment, but it was ultimately his decision to go to Amundsen. I asked him to think about what was important to him in high school, aside from academics and extracurricular activities, and he said he really wanted to make good friends. He said it was a family feel when he walked into Amundsen. He likes that it’s diverse in terms of abilities and in terms of cultures. I think it comes down to where your own child feels best.”
The School Year So Far
Amy and Lauren’s freshmen sons are adjusting quickly to their new schools. Amy’s son Leo has the benefit of an older brother already at Lake View as well as a “critical mass” of friends from his elementary school. And Lauren describes Matthew’s transition as “seamless.” He attended Amundsen’s orientation as well as its Freshman Connection Program, which allowed him to start meeting teachers and students and connected him early with potential extracurricular programs. He was even offered a midsummer spot playing on Amundsen’s baseball team and started cross country practice before the school year officially began. Amy’s sons are also involved in sports, and last year Nathan participated in Innovation Academy, a club focused on problem solving and technology. When I spoke to Amy and Lauren, the boys were preparing to participate in Homecoming.
Final Words of Wisdom
I asked Amy and Lauren to share any final words of wisdom with parents anticipating the high school decision-making process. Again, the two moms were likeminded.
“No matter what everybody says,” Lauren advised, “make the decision that’s best for you and your family. You’ll get a lot of feedback and suggestions from others, but go with what you feel is best. And go and see what’s happening in the schools. Don’t take anyone’s word for it. Have the kids do the shadow days and see what’s happening. And talk to teachers in the different buildings. Talk to staff members. Talk to students. That’ll give you a true sense of what it’s like. You can’t just assume good or bad things without this interaction.”
Amy agreed, and added, “Don’t discount your neighborhood school. I think for a large population of people, it’s not even on their radar. Just go there. Do a shadow day. Having your kid spend some time in the school as an 8th grader is a great opportunity. It teaches them what high school is like, not just Lake View or Amundsen. And don’t make the decision life or death. It’s high school. Wherever your kid goes, they’re going to find their place. And wherever they go isn’t going to determine their lot in life. It’s going to help them develop as people no matter what.”
Brady K. Jones is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at The University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois. She lives in Ravenswood with her husband, two children and exuberant dog. Brady loves traveling, reading, movies, coffee and the city of Chicago.