New school gaining steam

By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
Staff Writer

The Chicago Free School hosted an open house Saturday afternoon at its new location. The school also launched its fundraising campaign during the event.

The school’s founder, Lauren Beitler, shared the mission and philosophy of the school to the crowd of about 50 teachers, parents, organizers, supporters and members of the community who attended the open house, which was held at Augustana Lutheran Church, 5500 S. Woodlawn Ave. There were also tours of the space, question and answer sessions and brainstorming workshops.

Beitler, a graduate of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, taught at schools on the South Side, including Amandla Charter School in Englewood, before heading to New York to teach at the Free School in Albany, N.Y. She found that she preferred the private school’s democratic process, where everyone — even the children — participate in making decisions for the school. After returning to Hyde Park, she hosted several informational meetings to find out if parents would be interested in this type of school for their children.

Lauren Beitler

“I’m impressed and amazed and grateful to have so many people in attendance,” Beitler said. “Two years ago when I embarked on this journey of becoming a different kind of educator it seemed like a big risk, but as we get closer to our opening date, it feels like what should be happening.”

Interested parents and educators asked questions about grade levels, curriculum, class size and grade reports.

Beitler said the pre-K through 8th grade school is private so that it can remain free from the requirements of Chicago Public Schools, but in order to make it a place that is open to all who want to attend, tuition would be on a sliding scale based on each family’s income.

She said textbooks would not be used as the sole learning tool in classrooms. The school would have them available if teachers want to use them for certain projects. Beitler said she’s not in favor of hours of homework for children every night, and that students who attend Chicago Free School would be free to complete assignments they were working on at school at home if they want to. She also said she’s not in favor of technology for technology’s sake. She said, “If the student is working on a project that requires technological devices they will be used.”

Starting in August, the school will occupy classes on the second floor of Augustana and have full access to the sanctuary, fellowship hall, courtyard and other spaces in the church, said Mia Valdez Quellhorst, one of the founding organizers who will begin teaching at the school in the fall.

Valdez Quellhorst has been teaching in the public school system for four years — first at Harvard School, an AUSL Turnaround, and currently at Horizon Science Academy a charter school on the Northwest side.

Beitler, Valdez Quellhorst and the other founding organizers, five in total, were disheartened by CPS’s emphasis on teaching toward standardized tests because “standardized testing is turning school into a joyless place,” Beitler said.

She said due to the school’s small class sizes, 5 to 1, teachers would be able to promote students by making their own assessments. Since the school will not measure progress with letter grades, if a family transfers their student from the Free School, administrators will call the receiving school to help with the transition.

Beitler said the operating budget would be between $300,000 and $350,000 a year so tuition costs for each family would be $5,000 to $6,000 a year per student. The Free School is kicking off its fundraising efforts with a campaign video at indiegogo.com.

E-mail chicagofreeschool@gmail.com or visit chicagofreeschool.org for more information.

d.philips@hpherald.com