There are many nice homes for sale or rent in Chicago, and there are some high-performing schools. But finding a home in the district of a good CPS school was a little like playing chess on two different boards at once—that is, until the introduction of SchoolSparrow.
“It’s hard to find where the good schools are, and it’s even harder to find the real estate in the right school boundaries,” says Tom Brown, SchoolSparrow’s founder and chief designer. “It was even hard for me, and I’m a real-estate broker with access to the [multiple listing service].”
Real-estate agents usually include the names of the schools that serve a listed home, but their information may be inaccurate. One North Side homebuyer recently thought she’d found a home within the boundaries of the desirable Audubon School; she later learned it was actually a block outside the school’s boundaries, according to Sarah Pritz Shields, a friend of the home buyer and a new SchoolSparrow user.
A key to the site is that Brown, who operates livebytransit.com, has input all the boundaries of the more than 400 Chicago public schools. The site cross-references available listings with individual schools, something not available elsewhere in the city. Real-estate agents can try to do a search for homes within a school’s boundaries, but Brown notes that the map program used by the multiple listing service only allows for about a dozen angles—and some schools’ zigzagging boundaries have many more of them.
Brown’s site uses published test-score data to rank the schools; later he hopes to add more information, such as safety scores and rates of parental involvement. Last December he rolled out SchoolSparrow as a piece of livebytransit.com and then launched it as a freestanding site in May.
Users can search by school district, by home size, or by price, and it can find both for-sale homes and rentals. Pritz Shields and her husband, Douglas Shields, are considering moving out of their two-bedroom Buena Park condo before their older child starts kindergarten next year. She had been looking in the neighborhoods of schools recommended by friends—mostly the hot ones such as Blaine, Coonley, Bell, and Nettelhorst—and found rentals in multiunit buildings. SchoolSparrow broadened her horizons by calling up listings near Sauganash School, a standout on the Northwest Side, where, it turned out, there were some affordable single-family rental homes. The family hasn’t made a decision yet about the move, but Pritz Shields credits SchoolSparrow with “pointing us in that direction.”
Brown says that other Chicago parents considering moving near the good schools they already know about may also be frustrated by the lack of housing in their price range. “Lincoln School [in Lincoln Park] is great, but if you can’t afford homes starting [near] a million dollars, it’s not the option for you,” he says.
On a demo, he and I searched for three-bedroom homes for sale at $250,000 or less and found several listings near Canty Elementary on the far Northwest Side. It ranked 36th among CPS schools on Chicago’s last chart of elementary schools, published in October 2010. (The magazine’s next set of charts will appear in its September issue.) “Canty is a sleeper school that people ought to find out about,” Brown says. If they don’t have friends who mention it to them, there’s a little sparrow that might.