Progressive education is alive and well in Chicago, the home of John Dewey and the first laboratory school more than 100 years ago. I found a budding example this week, spending two days with the leadership team at the young, rapidly-growing Bennett Day School, which, come August, will be expanding from a quaint four-classroom early childhood center to a second campus building that will grow over the next few years to at least 8th grade and probably beyond. It was powerful to spend time with this group as I heard stories of five year-olds asking the questions that led to in-depth projects, and three year-olds taking weeks to research, understand and build a pond…before riding the cross town bus to visit and wonder over a real pond in a park.
The school is founded in the deep progressive roots of Reggio Emilia, which is most commonly associated with just younger grade levels. The very impressive team of both young and veteran teachers and administrators that have assembled to lead the growth of BDS are not only confident that they can expand that student-centered pedagogy to higher grades, they are building the roadmap to take them there. They find elements in many of the school examples I have passed along through #EdJourney and since, and they are committed to breaking the boundaries of traditionalism that have ossified other schools. Co-founder and lead academic Kate Cicchelli says that we find the core of real progressive learning in “what drives both a graduate student at Northwestern and a third grader. We see teachers and students as collaborators in learning; learning is a relationship, not a transaction.”
Bennett Day co-founder Cameron Smith describes his venture of passion as a “tax paying social enterprise”, which means that the capital to start and sustain the tuition-paying school through its start-up years has come from a group of investors dedicated to changing the face of education. At some point those investors will expect a return, but they know it will take time as the new campus is built out over the coming years and the student population growth fills the new classrooms. Cameron believes that one of the powerful advantages of a for-profit model is that the school will not rely on donations to make ends meet, and will not ask parents to make those donations.
We visited the new campus, workers rushing to finish the paint and carpet before opening day in August. One of the workers had asked “where is the furniture going to go; where is the front of the classrooms?”, to which one of the teacher-leaders had to respond “there are no fronts to the classrooms, and the furniture will go where it needs to go.” The campus building does not have a library where books will gather dust or a computer lab where technology will sit and wait for students to come. It has big, light tinker labs where students will design and make, not as a separate course of study, but as part of their work all the time.
I plan to keep a close eye on BDS. They are geographically positioned near the city center in a neighborhood that is showing every sign of explosive revitalization; Google just opened a huge new retrofitted office space a few blocks away and old buildings are being converted to new commercial and loft-style living. BDS plans to study with and across this community, using their campus as a hub or portal of real-world learning, and they are bursting with great ideas about how to do this. Stay tuned for more from them!