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Chicagoans of the Year 2013: Jeff Aeder and Jennifer Levine

Founders, Wolcott School

Photo: Jeff Sciortino; Hair and Makeup: Heather Schnell/Ford Artists

Education Pioneers

Founders, Wolcott School

Mollie was a bright, ambitious sixth grader, but her dyslexia made schoolwork difficult. So in 2009 her parents, Jeff Aeder and Jennifer Levine, found themselves touring a private school in Colorado for teens with learning challenges. “There was this incredible energy and camaraderie,” says Levine, 49, an attorney. “It made us say, ‘Wow, why shouldn’t this exist in Chicago?’ ”

To which Aeder, 51, a real-estate investor, replied, “Why can’t we do this?”

It took four years, but they did. The Lake View residents bought the old Union League Boys Club at 524 North Wolcott Avenue, hired the architect Larry Kearns to give the dilapidated 87-year-old structure a makeover, and recruited Miriam Pike, the former chair of special education at Deerfield High School, to run the place. Meanwhile, Aeder also found time this year to open Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed, a kosher Lake View restaurant that donates all its profits to local charities.

This fall, Wolcott School welcomed its first 33 students. They have what Aeder and Levine call a “learning difference”—difficulty with reading, writing, math, or organizational skills. Annual tuition is steep—$37,500—but thanks to the couple’s $13 million fundraising effort, half of the students receive some financial aid. “Our acceptance [policy] is blind to their ability to pay,” says Aeder, who, with Levine, was the lead donor (he declines to say how much).

As for Mollie? She is now a 15-year-old sophomore thriving at Wolcott School. After college, she wants to become a teacher.

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