urban-oriented families: as school choices increase, so too does the number of parents choosing city

When my wife and I became pregnant with our first child, I felt as though there was a ticking time bomb over my head. As much as we enjoyed our townhouse in the city, we knew that we would run out bedrooms if we decided to grow our family. And then there was the question of schools, a sheer cliff of anxiety looming on the not-too-distant horizon. 

When our townhouse started to feel cramped with a walking toddler and a second on the way, we poked around the leafy neighborhoods of Shaker Heights. While charming, the curvy streets reminded me of a suburban Bermuda Triangle. The homes were stately yet dated, and the drone of leaf blowers filled the air. It wasn’t for us. 

Instead, we found a roomy, renovated Victorian on W. Clinton Avenue in Detroit Shoreway, just a few blocks away from our EcoVillage townhouse. Gazing out from my front porch, the community felt like the one from my childhood. Neighbors swapped plants and held potlucks. There was a fantastic mix of people, more and more of whom were pushing strollers.

When Sweet Moses opened down the street, it was the icing on the proverbial cake, topping Edgewater Park, the West Side Market and a host of other neighborhood delights.

As our attentions turned from the newest bars and restaurants to playgrounds and play dates, we found we weren’t alone. We joined a babysitting coop and met other interesting parents who’d come up with creative ways to navigate family life in the city. We imagined ourselves part of a bigger shift -- a recommitment to raising kids in the city.

Growing family-friendly neighborhoods

From Gordon Square to North Collinwood, from University Circle to Ohio City, a shift is occurring, particularly among young homebuyers drawn to the city. Many are choosing to raise families here because, with its growing roster of good schools and phenomenal amenities, Cleveland has not only become an easier place to raise kids; it offers experiences you just can’t get in the suburbs.

In short, the roster of kid-friendly neighborhoods in Cleveland is growing, and so are the family amenities and resources to help parents navigate raising kids in an urban setting.

“We love living in the city,” says Amy Kulishek, who is raising her one-year-old daughter Alex on W. 45th Street with her husband, Rob Baraona. “Everything that people move out to the suburbs to find can be found here -- and so much more. The advantages of living here outweigh the challenges of the schools, which are not insurmountable.”

Together with a group of four west-side moms, Kulishek recently formed the Near West Family Network to help market the area’s family-friendly resources, promote quality local schools, advocate for family needs and organize fun family events such as a summer-long “playground crawl” that introduces parents to hidden community parks. 

Ashley Taseff, cofounder of the Near West Parents Network, is another Ohio City mom who touts the joys of urban parenting. “My kids have an awesome Cleveland summer bucket list,” she says, rattling off trips to Rockefeller Greenhouse, Steamship William Mather, Capitol Theatre and Superman’s home in Glenville, to name but a few.

Taseff also is organizing the first-ever Kidical Mass in Ohio City. A kid-friendly twist on the popular Critical Mass bike rides, the event will draw dozens of families to parade their bikes on a two-mile loop through Ohio City. After the ride, there’s ice cream at Fairview Park donated by Dave’s Supermarkets.

Programs and events like this help “engage and retain families,” Taseff asserts. This fall, she’ll be sending her daughter to Campus International at E. 30th and Chester, a Cleveland Metropolitan School District school that’s rated Excellent. 

Of course, there’s the ever-present question of safety posed by people unfamiliar with city living. While safety is a very real and persistent concern in Cleveland, it’s not just an urban issue, Kulishek argues. “People in the suburbs worry about safety," she reminds us. "I feel as safe as you probably should feel in the suburbs. Kids who grow up here learn to be safe.”

Beyond gentrification

The burgeoning trend of parents choosing to raise kids in the city goes well beyond gentrified Tremont or Ohio City. Parents in North Collinwood, Fairfax and Glenville also report feeling increasingly connected to a wealth of resources in the heart of Cleveland. Proximity to the amenities of University Circle certainly makes the choice easier.

“I’m starting to hear about families moving to the neighborhoods around University Circle so they can be in walking distance to the amenities,” says Chris Ronayne, President of University Circle Inc. (UCI). “We’re striving to build a complete neighborhood where you can live… from birth to your last years.”

Ronayne cites the “system of schools” that exists in University Circle -- from John Hay High School to the highly-rated Citizens Academy -- as an example of high-quality educational options flourishing in and around the Greater University Circle area. Cleveland Museum of Art’s new kid-friendly Gallery One is also a big draw.  

Proximity to University Circle is what attracted Jennifer Coleman and her husband August Fluker Jr., architects who are raising their 10-year-old son Cole, to settle at Beacon Place between Chester and Euclid Avenues. Coleman says her family enjoys taking advantage of Euclid Avenue’s bike lanes and riding to University Circle.

“Being able to walk or ride a bike, we have this diverse cultural neighborhood that’s a 10-minute trip from our house,” she says. “We think of it as our extended back yard.”

Another family-friendly pocket of the city exists on the so-called “beach streets” north of Lakeshore Boulevard in North Collinwood. Residents of this area have access to what some have called a “working-class country club” -- an informal, communal system of lakefront parks and beaches that knit together a vibrant, almost hidden community.

North Collinwood resident Robin Fraser says her son and daughter play on the beach all summer. There’s also a series of family-friendly concerts that happen nearly every Thursday night along the lakefront. Her neighborhood is filled with wildlife, from the screech owls she hears at night to the deer that she finds roaming her street.

Michael Loderstedt, a Collinwood parent who teaches photography and printmaking at Kent State University, likes to take his son and friends fishing and kayaking on the lake. “If you’re not wedded to a suburban fantasy of everything being taken care of for you, then there are lots of opportunities for kids and families to enjoy themselves here.”

Selling families on city life

That’s not to say that life in the city is perfect. These parents complain about the lack of connectivity between neighborhoods, the challenge of navigating through the maze of city school choices, and the lack of amenities like traditional preschools. Nonetheless, they say living in the city is worth the extra hassle.

Moreover, they recognize that for the city to become successful, it must become a community of choice for parents of all backgrounds, ethnicities and income levels.

“The school district has really made a conscious effort to beef up its marketing efforts, and they’re focusing on educating parents about the schools that are available,” says Christin Farmer, Program Manager of the Greater Circle Living Program at UCI. A Glenville native, Farmer recently bought a home and is raising her son here. 

Farmer believes that more young families would move to Cleveland if they were aware of the educational options that exist here. To that end, she is working with CMSD to market the schools in the area along with Greater Circle Living, which provides incentives to employees of neighborhood institutions to move into the area.

What’s most amazing about the trend of urban-oriented parents choosing Cleveland is that communities like Ohio City are becoming sought after for family-friendly amenities.

That’s certainly true of Lola and Dan Prignitz, a young couple who bought a home on Whitman Avenue with the anticipation of raising a family in Ohio City. High-performing neighborhood schools such as Near West Intergenerational School and the increasing presence of other young families in the area helped draw them to the community in the first place. Community programs like Ohio City Tee Ball, founded by Ohio City Inc., added to the appeal.

The Prignitzes, who are expecting their first child in September, lived in Boston and San Francisco before moving back to Cleveland, a city they’d lived in right after college.

“Cleveland has a lot of the same amenities as bigger coastal cities, but here I could buy a house out of law school,” says Lola, who graduated from Harvard Law School and works at Jones Day. “Ohio City felt like a communal place. There’s also a great network of families here who are really committed to raising kids in the city.”

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is a journalist, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in many regional and national publications. He is Managing Editor of Fresh Water Cleveland and Editorial Director of Issue Media Group. He has earned Master's degrees in English/Creative Writing and Public Administration from Cleveland State University. Originally from Cleveland Heights, he lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood with his family.
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