Teacher reaches out to Hyde Park for new program

Staff Writer

Educator Lauren Beitler held a meeting for Hyde Park parents Tuesday night to survey interest in the start of a school that emphasizes a democratic process.

Beitler, who is a graduate of the University of Chicago Urban Education Initiative program, was a middle school teacher at several schools on the South Side of Chicago including Amandla Charter School in Englewood before heading to New York to teach at the Free School in Albany, New York. Free schools are private, have no principal and everything is decided by community consensus — a consensus that includes the students. Beitler believes this type of learning institution would be a great fit for the Hyde Park, Kenwood or Woodlawn community.

About 10 parents whose children attended public, private, charter, gifted, Catholic, Jewish and Montessori schools attended the meeting. Students feeling overloaded with homework, too much testing, overcrowded classrooms and lack of responsiveness to parent concerns from Chicago Public Schools were some of the reasons parents mentioned they attended the meeting to learn more about the Free School model.

“During my time teaching middle school, I felt that my job was a lot about crowd control — sit still, be quiet,” Beitler said. “With 25 kids, the room was so crowded and the kids were from low-income families and their social emotional needs were not being met.”

Beitler said she also was disappointed that many of the Chicago schools she worked for were segregated.

“I don’t think it’s fair for kids to go through their entire school career without integration,” she said. “Plus violence and bullying are not being addressed constructively.”

Beitler said she also felt like she wasn’t being heard by the administration and she was working so hard that there was no chance for creativity in teaching. She said these constraints are what caused her to accept a one-year internship at the Free School in 2012-2013.

“Students have a choice in what they learn,” Beitler said. “They have a say about how the school is run, day-to-day operations and conflict resolution and the community gets to be included in school decisions.”

She said students can lead meetings and request and lead classes.

“Teachers have authority but there are no special ranks,” said Beitler, who said on her first day the adults referred her to the students who gave her a tour of the pre-K through 8th grade school. There is another Free School in Brooklyn that offers pre-K through 12th grade.

Although kids are allowed democratic freedom, Beitler said, “It’s not a free-for-all. The school is still a safe learning environment, there is still structure but kids have say in the structure.”

She said in New York, the day started with free play and breakfast then a class meeting and academic classes. There is a family-style lunch, which the students help prepare and clean up after, and then they participate in elective classes and have more free play.

Although the classes are mostly grouped by age the more advanced students are moved ahead. Depending on the level and interest in a course, kids as young as 5 and as old as 12 could be in class together.

Teachers don’t have to run the show and students know what to do when they need a grown up. Because of the student-to-teacher ratio if a student is struggling or anxious about a subject such as math there are opportunities for the student to receive one-to-one instruction.

There are no tests or grades.

“With nine kids to a class we can see what all the kids are doing and informally assess their next steps,” Beitler said.

While the students do take exams such as the SAT and ACT, which help determine high school readiness, the scores are solely used as an assessment of the student not to judge the school or the principal.

At the beginning of the year parents sign a general release slip that allow for frequent and impromptu field trips. Classes take as many as three to five outings per week. The 8th graders raised money to go to Puerto Rico, which motivated them to learn Spanish.

There is sliding scale tuition at the Free School.

Beitler said she and the group of educators working with her to establish a Free School in Chicago are currently in the envisioning stage of what they hope will become a pre-K through 12th grade school.

The organizing committee, which includes teachers, are seeking out interested families, setting up a Kickstarter page and thinking of other fundraising events, reaching out to accountants, lawyers to become familiar with education laws in the city and looking for churches in the community who have space for rent.

Beitler said the operating budget would be between $300,000 and $350,000 a year so tuition costs for each student would be $5,000 to $6,000. Like in New York, the Chicago Free School would offer tuition on a sliding scale based on income.

The team would like to have 60 students and five teachers and are searching for space in Hyde Park, Woodlawn or Kenwood, which Beitler said would allow for a diverse population.

For more information, e-mail chicagofreeschool@gmail.com.