The Children’s School in Berwyn was quiet this day except for children’s faint voices echoing throughout the hallways. In one classroom students sat quietly on couches reading books, while others strategically built a tower of blocks. Down the hall, fourth-graders stood around the piano in music class tapping out rhythms and moving their bodies to represent different beats. Several classrooms were empty of students. Many were at the Morton Arboretum doing hands-on activities with nature. But even these empty classrooms were teeming with life: wooden lofts, tree houses, couches, and a bathtub used as a reading area, to name a few.
Almost everywhere else, elementary education has gotten “serious” over the past 20 years, due to forces ranging from rising parental expectations to the No Child Left Behind Act. But the Children’s School takes a progressive route and steers away from standardized testing and data collecting and focuses on project-based learning.
These growing expectations on children are controversial, and Pamela Freese, director of administration at The Children’s School, understands that.
“I know it’s an ongoing issue, but forcing tests and stressing students with exceeding amounts of pressure does not work,” Freese said. “By forcing such pressures, the love of learning goes away. Children are still taught in an environment that supports the achievement of all local and state curriculum goals, but in a relaxed manner that focuses on each child.”
The cap for each classroom is 15 students, and that will never increase. There are no letter or number grades. Teachers don’t assign textbooks but can use them to enhance learning if they fit in a lesson.
“We believe in qualitative learning,” Freese said. “Each teacher does write a four- to five-page evaluation about each student and then has an hour-long conference with each parent several times a year. The whole idea of introducing a skill and mastering it is not what we are about.”
The Children’s School was established in the fall of 2004 in Oak Park with 13 children. The school follows the principles of John Dewey, who established the University of Chicago Laboratory School in 1896. Dewey focused on learning through doing.
In 2006 the school rented out space from St. Mary of Celle, 1428 Wesley Avenue, in Berwyn to allow space for more students. Today, the school is almost to its capacity at 74 students.
A typical daily schedule does not stray far from a public school, but leaves more room for spontaneity. The faculty enforces discipline the same way public schools do.
Second grade teacher Cynthia Robenson left teaching years ago to stay home and take care of her kids. Once hearing about The Children’s School and its uniqueness, Robenson applied and has been teaching second grade there for three years.
“A big misconception about progressive learning is that there is no structure and kids are out of control,” Robenson said. “That is not at all the case. Students here are able to learn what they want to learn, but under guidance from the faculty. We as teachers are able to guide their learning and foster the social and emotional aspects at the same time.”
Educational progressivism is the belief that education must be based on the fact that humans are social animals who learn best in real-life activities with other people. Progressive educators, such as the ones at The Children’s School, believe that children learn as if they are little scientists.
Each classroom contains a unique element that students have created. The first grade room has a wooden loft, which is a prominent part of the classroom. Students got to work with professional contractors and architects to learn how the process of designing and building works.
“Each student drew a design and presented it to the class,” Freese said. “Then 14 first-graders collaborated amongst themselves and picked one design they liked the best. This allowed the kids to brainstorm, compromise, and come up with a decision together. Through that process they learned real-life skills and used sophisticated learning that adults have to deal with every day.”
Second and third grades are meshed together into one classroom for social and academic reasons. “It’s a small community, so combining the two grades mixes up the kids, so they have an opportunity to get to know more peers,” Freese said. “ Some students are advanced socially, but not academically in these two grades and vice versa. We like to allow the kids who are accelerated to feel they are being challenged, but we also want the kids who need more help to not feel discouraged.”
One section of second/third grade completed a unit at the end of last year on Egyptians. Instead of reading textbooks, writing research papers, or watching history movies, the students turned their classroom into a replica of ancient Egypt, complete with secret passageways. The coatroom was emptied out and made it into King Cluck’s tomb were students painted hieroglyphics on the wall to tell the story of King Cluck’s life. Students mummified the chicken and reenacted all the various funerary rites. At the end of the unit each student dressed as Ancient Egyptians as each child took on a certain role in the proceedings.
“This kind of experiential learning is very powerful and memorable for children,” said the teacher, Christy Martin. “Remember, these are seven and eight year olds, and research skills are new to them and hard work. But they collected a huge amount of information and had a great time doing it.”
Parents are often the first to put undue pressure on their child to succeed, but parents at The Children School say that behavior is harmful to their child.
“Our goal was to find a school that focused on our children rather than on bubble tests and worksheets,” parent Leslie Levi said. “I have nothing against public schools, but for us it just depended more on the style of learning and the smaller community. Here, our children don’t slip through the cracks.”
Freese’s son Jared attended The Children’s School but moved to a public middle school in Oak Park. After he took his first standardized test, he came home and asked his mother if they could go to the library because one of the questions mentioned a book, Where The Red Fern Grows, and he wanted to read it.
“Jared was able to take what he learned and engage in his learning,” Freese said. “He didn’t care that this standardized test was ranking him with thousands of other kids in the state and therefore, the pressure was gone.”
The Children School is selective, however, and does come at a high price. Parents must apply and have an interview with the director of curriculum. Tuition is about $7,200 a year, but parents say it’s worth it.
Every parent here is willing to pay the price to give their child the best learning experience for their child,” Robenson said. “You simply can’t put a price on good education.”