By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
A Hyde Park-based school for children with diverse learning styles and developmental needs is surveying parents to assess the need to add a second location on the North Side of Chicago.
City Elementary Chicago, a K-3 school which opened in September inside of K.A.M. Isaiah Israel, 1100 E. Hyde Park Blvd., was founded by a group of parents who said they desperately needed a place for their children, who have special learning needs, and now they want to help families on the North Side who have the same need.
“We’re looking to open the North Side location about a year from next school year [2016-2017] if we get enough families that are interested,” said City Elementary school head Karen Daiter. “The hallmark of the mindset of the school is to meet the need as we see it.”
The founding parents of City Elementary met while their children attended LEEP Forward, 1280 W. Washington Blvd., a therapeutic preschool for children who have been diagnosed with autism and sensory integration disorders. Once their children aged out of the program, they found their options were limited.
Founding parent Leah Harp said she understands how parents with special needs children feel when looking for a safe learning environment for their children.
“I remember floundering around trying to understand what is happening to my child,” Harp said.
Boisterous overlapping conversations, bright neon lights, an array of posters and signs on the walls and the bellowing of a bell are signs of a regular school day to many children but can have an adverse affect on special needs children.
“We loved the school we chose but it wasn’t a place where my son would be able to learn,” Harp said of Lincoln Elementary School. “The loud sounds and bright lights debilitate him.”
Harp said she and her husband, founding parent Jason, found that “private schools were not capable of handling children with special needs and other schools would take children with special needs if they had an aid but it’s still a lot of desk work.”
Founding parents Steven and Gretchen Rings said their son was at the University of Chicago Laboratory School before they helped start City Elementary.
Gretchen Rings said before helping to start the school, she and Steven didn’t feel confident in their school choice for their son, Elliot.
“It felt like a rock in the pit of our stomachs because we knew it was the wrong school for him,” Gretchen Rings said. “Now we drop him off with more assurance that he is in the right learning environment for his needs.”
Next school year, City Elementary plans to expand to the next grade level and parents from South Shore, Beverly and Morgan Park neighborhoods are interested in enrolling their children in the school, according to Harp.
“They are excited to find more services on the South Side,” Harp said.
“The only other options are schools in the suburbs like Naperville or Burr Ridge,” Steven Rings said.
City Elementary’s tailored learning environment uses the LEEP Forward therapeutic technique and the Common Core guidelines as its academic foundation, but has its own qualitative assessment rubric, designed by school head Karen Daiter, that measures progress in social emotional, language, arts, math and motor skills.
“We’re very individualized,” said Kate Bonfante, lead teacher at City Elementary. “Everyone has off days but instead of putting [students] in a back corner or in the hallways like in other schools, we can calm them and work with them.”
Bonfante said the school has the flexibility to respond to basic needs such as the need for movement and hunger right at that moment.
Daiter said the school also coordinates with other service providers and is open to have clinicians come in and see the children during the day, which helps parents avoid various commutes to appointments before and after school.
Harp said her son was able to return to Lincoln Elementary after a period of time at City Elementary.
“My son had a neurological surge — being at City helped him,” Harp said. “The earlier you start with getting services, the better.”
Other future plans for the school include adding family services such as parent and sibling support groups and seeking grants and other funding to offer scholarships and help families offset the school’s annual $20,000 tuition.