One Friday morning this past fall several hundred children, adults and even a few pets huddled together on an Evanston beach at 6:30 a.m., waiting patiently for the sun to rise.
Students “learn by doing” at Baker Demonstration School, a pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade laboratory school that has been a department within National-Louis University’s National College of Education since the college was founded in 1918.
This can mean sharing a lakefront sunrise with parents, teachers, peers and pets before studying the Earth’s most important star because, the staff will tell you, education at Baker is considered a hands-on community event.
“We’re really committed to progressive education and all that it means,” explains the school’s director, William Melsheimer. “We are committed to the heart and soul of each individual student.”
Nestled in a state-of-the-art facility alongside the teachers’ college on the Evanston campus, virtually every Baker teacher holds a master’s degree and is on the university’s faculty. The undergraduate and graduate education students are a constant presence in every classroom, testing the newest ideas, methods and practices.
The two schools have had a long-standing, successful and symbiotic relationship, yet despite all that the two organizations are in the midst of a divorce.
End of an era Effective July 1, Baker will become an independent private school. Last fall, the university announced it would sell its Evanston campus and pour more attention into the challenges facing Chicago’s urban schools. The administration said it wouldn’t be fair to move the school or change its focus to better fit the college’s new mission, so the college decided to hand the fiscal reins to Baker. The overhead costs at Baker are up to $1 million annually, a sum that, according to Dr. Kathryn Tooredman, National-Louis’ provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, no longer adds up.
“It’s not as though the National College of Education will be exclusively urban [focused],” Tooredman says. “But when it came to investing $1 million in a demonstration school, we decided the money could be better spent demonstrating the practices that work in the most challenged schools.”
The initial announcement hit Baker parents and faculty hard.
“When you’re told you’re breaking away from the mother ship, there’s nervousness on all sides,” says Mark TerMolen, a parent, co-chair of the parent-faculty transition team that hastily formed last June and newly elected head of the school’s board of directors. “There was a lot of concern and frustration as to whether we’d be able to survive.”
The transition team studied similar schools and researched applicable legal, real estate and governance issues. It also looked at comprehensive funding, marketing and enrollment plans. On Sept. 21, National-Louis and Baker officials signed a formal, yet amicable, separation agreement.
“As it’s worked out, it’s a divorce where we expect to remain very good friends,” TerMolen says. “We’re parting much more on a financial level than on an educational one.”
The contract allows Baker to remain on the Evanston campus for two more years, giving the newly chosen board of directors plenty of time to find a new home. It also leaves the door open for a continued affiliation between National-Louis and Baker’s students and faculty.
“We’re anticipating the new campus will be no more than 10 miles away,” Tooredman says. “Those 10 miles will not sever our academic relationship with Baker as a clinical placement site ... the possibilities are endless.”
In the art room of Baker’s middle school stands a gigantic model of ancient Rome. Built by students during a two-day unit on Roman history, culture and language, the project holds special symbolism for Baker.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Melsheimer says. “It took two.”
It will also take time for Baker to make the full transition to an independent school. But on Nov. 19, the board of directors submitted a bid to buy its Evanston facility from the university.
Timing is everything The transition comes at a time when Chicago’s public educational system is beset by its own growing pains. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law enacted in 2002, 100 percent of the nation’s students will be expected to meet state standards in reading and math by 2014. According to a July 2003 report by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, roughly two-thirds of Chicago’s 11th-graders currently cannot read at state-mandated levels and approximately three-fourths cannot meet the standards in math or science.
City schools are struggling to adapt existing teaching practices with the complicated mandates of the law and the consequences of failing to meet its rigorous testing standards. This year alone, 22 Chicago schools face the possibility of a state takeover, while 216 others had to offer students the option of transferring to a school not on the government’s watch list.
Under the city’s new and radical Renaissance 2010 plan, as many as 60 of the city’s most troubled schools will be supplanted in the next five years by 100 new charter and contract schools run by private entities and featuring specialized curricula.
“The smartest school districts will allow parents to have a choice,” Tooredman says, adding that National-Louis hopes to work with Renaissance 2010. “Those who ignore the needs of parents and children will find parents demanding to be allowed to [go to] someone who will.”
Charter and independent schools like Baker give parents the ability to “vote with their feet.” According to the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, 12 percent (5.4 million) of the nation’s students are enrolled in private schools, up from 10 percent in 1996. A recent report by the Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., showed even greater increases in urban areas, where 17.5 percent of families send their children to private schools.
“Today, most non-minority, middle or upper-income families in Chicago can choose a good school,” wrote the members of the Education Committee of the Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago in a July 2003 report. “If such schools are not available where they live, they can send their children to private schools, [or even] choose to move [to another] community.”
But that is not an option for many Chicago Public School students. The majority of Chicago students in the most challenged public schools cannot—for reasons both geographic and financial—attend schools like Baker.
“Most low-income, minority families who live in Chicago—particularly in Chicago’s inner-city neighborhoods—have no choice but to send their children to public schools in their neighborhoods,” the report continues.
In fact, a full 85.3 percent of the city’s students are from low-income families; Baker’s yearly tuition ranges from $5,600 in preschool to $12,550 in middle school. And even for those who can afford private school, it’s hard for many to get to Baker in Evanston—75 percent of the students there hail from Evanston or right near it.
Still, while unrealistic for the public school budget is still a template for how to get education right; with small class sizes (12 to 16 students), an amazing teacher-to-student ratio (two teachers in every classroom plus student teachers, parent aides and other observers).
“They have developed an excellent set of best [teaching] practices,” Tooredman says. A professor of educational administration before accepting National Louis’ provost position, she has been an objective observer of Baker for nearly 20 years. “It’s a close knit community with devoted parents who work well together. None of that will diminish.”
Jodilee Mesirow, a Baker mother of two and co-chair of the governance committee, agrees. “Baker is a magical place to be,” she says. “They respect, adore and take responsibility for each individual child. These children love to go to school.”
Melsheimer acknowledges that as Baker transitions and grows—he’d eventually like to see enrollment rise from 276 to 400—and as public schools continue to deal with the federal mandates of No Child Left Behind, discontented parents may look to Baker for sanctuary.
“We really want them to come to us in anticipation of a positive experience rather than flee from something else,” he says. “We’re more concerned about the journey than the destination.”
Plans for capital campaigns and marketing drives are already in the works for Baker.
“We’re blazing our own trail,” Melsheimer says. “And we have every potential to make this school into a premier private school. The parents, the staff, the students—all the pieces of the equation are there. All we have to do is come together and make it happen.”