Growing School in Chicago Taps Into Deep Progressive Roots

Growing School in Chicago Taps Into Deep Progressive Roots

imgresProgressive 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.

Leadership team outside the new campus buildings.

Leadership team outside the new campus buildings.

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!

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  1. Betsy Hartge July 23, 2016 at 6:47 pm - Reply

    Thank you Grant for sharing about this school. It sounds SO exciting.
    Betsy Hartge
    The Summit School (former teacher)
    Edgewater, MD
    Now an educational consultant for students with giftedness and dyslexia…

  2. Betsy Hartge July 23, 2016 at 6:49 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing about this school. It sounds SO exciting. I will try to visit it this year in Chicago.
    Betsy Hartge
    former teacher at The Summit School, Edgewater, MD

  3. Betsy Hartge July 23, 2016 at 6:50 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing about the new school in Chicago. It sounds amazing.

  4. Rob Bean July 24, 2016 at 1:35 am - Reply

    It’s amazing to see new preps arise.Watching them with new curriculums& activities forces existing preps to retool for remaining competitive. Like the spirit here! Good luck!

  5. Virginia Kennedy July 26, 2016 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    Hi Grant, What you say about BDS is encouraging and exciting insofar as the movement toward progressive student-centered education. But, I am philosophically leery about ‘for-profit’ schools. Public charters and nonprofit private schools obviously step away from the generalized public school institution, and there are strong arguments in both directions–positive and negative–about their benefits. But, the for-profit arena makes students “products” in monetized terms in ways that private non-profits and public charters do not. At public charters or private nonprofits, no owners or investors profit in terms of money rewarded to private individuals for a deliverable. A for-profit venture could begin as creative, but essentially it seems that “what sells” (and “what sells” could be something great or something gimmicky that has mass market appeal and will create a return on investment regardless of its education value) will eventually determine curriculum rather than a creative, progressive, student-centered agenda. Is this a fair concern? Is there a way of looking at this that’s more philosophically “comfortable”?

    • Grant July 26, 2016 at 2:42 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Virginia. I think you are right to have a healthy skepticism for for-profit education, but as with anything I think we should also be open to the possibility that not all should be tarred with a single brush. One point is that ALL schools are now in the position of “selling” themselves as families have a vast array of options for their kids’ education; that is just the reality of the world and I don’t think it is bad. We should be pressed to provide value, and if some families find value that fits them better in a school across town, then thank goodness we are blessed with choice and options. The second point is that I don’t think all “investors” are the same. BDS is the first for-profit school I have looked closely at, and at least now they seem quite different than the companies that are cramming lots of kids in front of computers with lowly-paid teachers.

      Time will tell, but I do think it is right to observe, watch, and see. As with most things, when people have good will, good things will happen and some of those might not fit into past molds; that is the nature of innovation. Of course, when motivations run contrary to what is best for kids, bad things happen. We shall see!

    • Rob Bean July 26, 2016 at 2:46 pm - Reply

      As, a,business professional I see new applicants& do interviews. Computer, problem solve skills are keys along with interpersonal traits. Need is there to keep current in skill sets.Preps must adhere to high standards & NOT lose sight of student acquisition of needed course requirements.

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