SchoolSparrow was founded by Tom Brown, a Chicago real estate professional, website developer, and parent to two daughters who attended Chicago Public Schools. Tom has been a licensed real estate Managing Broker since 2009 and has helped dozens of families conduct a school and home search throughout Chicago and the suburbs. Tom is an Air Force brat and is a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, a federally recognized Native American tribe with ancestral homelands in Nebraska. Tom is a descendant of Chief Petalasharo who was nationally recognized in the early 1800’s for rescuing a young Comanche girl from the Pawnee’s morning star sacrifice ritual. Petalasharo gave this speech at the White House during the presidency of James Monroe. Tom enjoys cooking, spending time with his family, building new web applications, and practicing Jiu Jitsu.
Tom graduated from the University of Colorado (Boulder) with a BS in Civil Engineering and took a job as a traffic engineer in Dallas TX. He moved to the Chicago area to attend Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management in pursuit of an MBA in Real Estate Finance. After graduating Kellogg, Tom worked as a commercial real estate developer for 5 years before starting his real estate brokerage business in the wake of the financial crisis. Tom’s company is Sparrow Realty (formerly New Urban) which created a niche focused on transit and public schools in Chicago. However, Tom has a found a new passion that has completely changed the trajectory of his career, and he is now fighting against discriminatory practices in real estate, particularly as they relate to biased school ratings that are harming high quality urban schools nationwide.
Tom came to understand the problem with school ratings and its impact on real estate over many years of helping parents conduct a school and home search, and his own experience finding a school for his daughters.
It All Started With Transit
Tom was looking for an apartment in Chicago after graduating Kellogg. He found it frustrating to find an apartment within a 5 minute walk to a train station. At the time, Google Maps did not have transit locations, so the process required physically referencing 3 different maps to triangulate the distance between apartment listings and transit stops.
A few years later, Tom owned a brokerage business and based on his experience finding his first apartment in Chicago, he decided to build a website as a lead generator that allows people to search for property by transit locations. Tom solicited propsosals from local software development teams to build the website.
An Unexpected Detour
The cost to build his vision inspired Tom to learn how to code himself, and coincidentally, around the same time, a new Chicago startup called Code Academy (later Starter League), was launched with the goal of teaching regular people how to code. Tom enrolled in the class, and 12 weeks later, he had built the first version of livebytransit.com. Tom was featured in this TedX talk given by one of Tom’s classmates in that first cohort of Code Academy.
Schools: A Problem Bigger Than Transit
Towards the end of the Code Academy class, Tom and his wife Amy were considering where to send their oldest daughter to school for Kindergarten, and they were frustrated at how hard it was to match real estate listings, school attendance boundaries, and school performance data. Tom had just built LiveByTransit, so it was natural to add in school boundary searches to help ease the pain.
Eventually Tom found school performance data and created a new website, SchoolSparrow.com which is still the only place where users can enter their real estate parameters, then see the Top 30 Schools that have homes for sale right now that match their requirements. As a result of this website, Tom has helped many families find homes in and around Chicago when schools are a major factor in the location decision.
School Ratings Sites: A Great Resource?
In the real estate world, it is considered unethical to answer questions like “is this is a good school”, or “where are the good schools” because answering these questions is steering the client. As a result, realtors are instructed to refer their clients to other resources where they can do their own research. One of those resources is the ubiquitous school rating system greatschools.org which ties into all the real estate search portals such as Zillow, Redfin and Realtor.com.
An Unfair Rating
When Tom looked up his neighborhood school on the greatschools website, it was discouraging to see it was ranked a 2/10. This fact lingered or a few years, until one day a friend in academia made Tom aware of some research conducted by a graduate student out of Stanford. After reading the research, suddenly everything clicked together. Tom found more research that supported the startling conclusion: the biggest factor that influences test scores is parent income, not the quality of the schools.
Tom remembered one of the things he liked about his neighborhood school was the racial and socio-economic diversity at the school. Sadly, it was this very diversity that contributed to the school’s poor rating. Then he remembered the decisions that were made by a recent buyer, a young family moving to Chicago. Although they wanted more diversity and a home in the city, they didn’t feel they could afford the home they needed in the schools that were highly rated, so they settled for a home in the suburbs, with long commutes, less time with family, and no diversity, all in the name of chasing the “best” schools. What this family didn’t know was they were really chasing parent incomes…and they simply weren’t aware of the high quality schools in affordable areas in the City because of the biased and artificially low ratings.
Test Scores Are One Factor, But They Have To Be Used In Context
Tom realized that a transparent rating system that creates a fair comparison between schools has to account for parent income, otherwise the rating system is simply comparing parent incomes, not school quality. And he realized that the rating system realtors are pointing their buyers to is actually doing exactly what the industry is trying to avoid: steering the client! The other ranking sites steer people to privileged schools, and away from schools with lower incomes, some of which have vibrant socio-economic diversity, one of the very things that some parents love about those schools!
Creating the Ranking System
As luck would have it, a data science class was starting at Tom’s coworking space at 1871, and Tom had an opportunity to enroll. For his class project, Tom imported socio-economic data for Chicago schools and plotted test scores against this data. The resulting trendline showed similar findings compared to the research studies he found: parent income is the most influential factor in determining average test scores at a school. Using this trendline, he created the first equitable ranking system for Chicago Public Schools. Later he expanded to the Suburbs, and in early 2020, Tom’s system was expanded to include 24 major metropolitan areas nationwide.
Tom’s ranking algorithm has continued to evolve, for example, in March 2021 he incorporated an adjustment to account for English Language Learners (LEP) and Special Needs (CWD) students that took the test. These LEP/CWD adjustments are necessary to make a fair comparison between schools.
So What Now?
We think all the real estate search portals have a responsibility to display a more balanced view of school quality, so that buyers can make home buying decisions with a clearer view of what the data really means. High test scores does not mean high quality: it means high incomes. This fact is being obscured by the industry and it has to change. You can help us by signing up on our supporters list.