What parents need to know when picking an independent school

When it comes to selecting a school for their children, Chicago area parents have a wide variety of options, including numerous independent schools. Independent schools are not-for-profit, tuition-based schools. Each one has its own philosophy and mission statement that guides the operation of the school.

Independent schools are uniquely positioned to help their students achieve. Here are nine ways they do that:

1 A low student to teacher ratio

Independent schools have a 9:1 student to teacher ratio. “That ratio means teachers can develop relationships with students, and establishing a relationship is critical to students being comfortable and able to learn,” says Audrey Perrott, head of school at Near North Montessori in Chicago and Lake Michigan Association of Independent Schools (LMAIS) board member. “When a student feels like ‘this person knows me and cares about me,’ that student is far more open to learning,” Perrott says.

2 A focus on teacher development

Good teachers are essential, and independent schools focus on teacher development. Michael Roberts, head of Catherine Cook School in Chicago and president of LMAIS, says that the independent schools in Chicago often work together to share best practices and learn from each other’s experiences.

“Our independent schools are not in competition with each other and it’s important for all of us as educators in Chicago to raise the bar for all the children. We want to share what we’re doing and make it available to as many teachers, schools and kids as possible,” he says.

3 Fostering student independence

Independent schools focus on fostering student independence. While that looks different at different age levels, there is a focus on problem solving. Jeff Bell, head of school at Beacon Academy in Evanston, says “Our students are very good at figuring out how to handle situations themselves, and confidence comes along with that independence.”

“The feedback we’ve received from parents of our ninth-graders is that they are less reliant on their parents than they were before arriving at Beacon just a short time ago. A sense of confidence comes with that independence,” he adds.

4 Supporting character development

Independent schools focus on character development of their students, an approach that Roberts believes sets them apart. “We are teaching them to be ethical, kind people,” he says. Catherine Cook has been an ethical literacy school and worked in partnership with the Institute for Global Ethics for a decade. “It has made a difference in how our students interact with each other, with their teachers and with the world.”

5 Encouraging student creativity

“While independent schools are different in how they deliver information, there is an effort to nurture and develop creativity in students. Creativity is a key skill that is necessary for success in life,” says Perrott, who notes that studies show the creativity quotient among U.S. students dropping after fourth grade. “Students can demonstrate knowledge in a way that keeps creativity alive.”

Catherine Cook students have joined the Maker movement, which encourages creativity as well as problem solving and working collaboratively. At Beacon Academy, assignments often involve hands-on projects and students have a wide variety of options when deciding how to complete projects.

6 Creating travel opportunities

Many independent schools take international trips, some starting in middle school, and most often their travels are service-related. Students at Near North Montessori have traveled to orphanages in Honduras and Guatemala. Beacon students will travel to Nicaragua with Allowance for Good, a teen philanthropy group.

“We are raising students to have an awareness beyond themselves and of the global community. It helps them see that they can make a difference and also develops cultural competency,” says Perrott.

7 Building flexible spaces

Independent schools can optimize the learning environment to the advantage of students, be that through unique furniture that can be rearranged based on size of class and group to the structure of the actual classrooms. Perrott says they rely on research showing the impact colors, windows and overall classroom design can have on learning. Flexible spaces also help foster that independence, as Bell notes that Beacon “feels similar to a college campus.”

8 Giving access to resources

The old saying that you are only as good as your tools applies to education, too. “Classrooms in independent schools are fully equipped with what teachers need to educate and inspire students. Teaching is not interrupted because they don’t have the necessary materials, be those didactic materials, technology, or anything else,” says Perrott. She notes teachers are given independence in their classroom to go beyond textbooks and that they can create creative and engaging lessons when resources are at their fingertips.

9 Ability to interact with the community

At Beacon Academy, students interact with people from around the world meeting with the school’s neighbors at the Rotary International Headquarters, and Bell describes Evanston as an extension of Beacon’s campus. Students spend up to 20 percent of their time in the community. Says Bell, “Our students have a unique freedom to learn in and from the community.”

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