An Urban School That’s Really a ‘Learning Oasis’

Think urban school means concrete playgrounds? A peek at Chicago City Day School’s campus will change that. See why this parent lauds City Day’s outdoor amenities.

In the gifted program at one of Chicago’s top public schools, Kelly Waldhoff’s son was doing well. But, she says, he wasn’t thriving. “The school had nice facilities and there was nothing bad, but for him, what we noticed was he would benefit from a more dynamic school environment — one that offered different types of learning spaces and more opportunities to get outside during the day,” she explains.

At the end of his third-grade year, he joined Chicago City Day School, an independent JK-grade 8 school on Chicago’s North Side. Unlike the typical urban school, Chicago City Day has ample green space and natural amenities — including a greenhouse, koi pond and student vegetable garden — that create an inspiring learning environment for inquisitive students.

For Waldhoff’s son, that move made all the difference.

“It was a 180-degree change,” Waldhoff says, explaining that City Day’s expansive campus provides indoor and outdoor learning areas while acting as a natural buffer between the school and the bustling city. “The campus lets students feel calm and settled. They know they’re in a place to learn. They’re receptive to content, able to focus, and able to retain information so much better.”

Now a fifth grader at City Day, Waldhoff’s son comes home from school with enough energy to focus on homework. “It 100% makes a difference for him,” she says.

He was joined at City Day by his younger sister, who is now a first grader at the school. “They are really thriving in a way that’s exciting to see,” Waldhoff says. “The environment at City Day supports and encourages that for them.”

City Day Head of School Chris Dow says that providing an expansive campus was part of the school’s mission from the start.

“Over the 40-plus-year history of the school, every element of the campus has been meticulously and intentionally designed and developed to inspire learning, invigorate students, and instill a sense of pride in the school community,” Dow says.

Even though Waldhoff attended City Day herself, she and her husband, who grew up in a rural setting, looked at other schools in Chicago before making their final decision.

“I had a great experience as a kid at City Day, so naturally it was on our list. When we went to the campus with my husband and son, I saw it differently — as a parent now,” Waldhoff says. “I see what I took for granted as a kid. My husband, though, was overwhelmed by the space. He didn’t know a place like this existed in the city. This is a luxurious learning oasis.”

A truly magical place’ for learning

Appreciating the campus in all the ways a first grader can, Waldhoff’s daughter sees her educational environment as a “magical place,” Waldhoff says. That is because the teachers at City Day know how to maximize the physical space — indoor and out — to create learning experiences that children are eager to access.

Waldhoff recalls the day when her daughter came home excited about the small gliders she and her classmates built in City Day’s design-oriented tech class and then tested outside in the ample open space on campus. While talking about it, she articulated the importance of wing design and fuselage shape on glider performance.

“I’ve also heard her say she went to the treasure tree and the science teacher took her to see the baby bunnies and they put leaves out for the bunnies. It’s an extraordinary campus where different fascinating things happen every day,” Waldhoff says.

City Day provides the kind of facilities and learning environment families might assume are available only at suburban schools, Waldhoff adds.

“We’re a city family living in a city house. Apart from going to the park, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for her to run around and interact with nature. But City Day takes on an idyllic element and she can’t wait to go to school every day. To see the magic through her eyes is really fun,” Waldhoff says.

Photo credit: Chicago City Day School

Waldhoff’s older child loves the campus, as well. Through effective use of the physical amenities on campus, including the vegetable garden, butterfly habitat, wildlife areas, Lego-building room and tech labs, City Day teachers spark excitement in her son, she says.

“Last year, all the fourth-graders went on a math egg hunt. The teacher placed equations inside plastic eggs and hid them in the nooks of the trees on campus,” Waldhoff explains. “He was thrilled to break open an egg and solve a math problem. The teachers are really creative in the way they use the space and this draws the kids in and gets them excited.”

Community building and skills for the future

With teachers who understand academic rigor and make it a priority to differentiate their instruction, all students at City Day are challenged and engaged — and Waldhoff’s son, who thrives through physical movement, is finding joy and kindness on campus, Waldhoff says.

“The teachers really focus on making sure kids feel included. He came to the school not knowing how to play basketball, football or baseball, so he didn’t join in initially. But the gym teacher invited him to play and he even caught a pass. Now he loves to play outside with friends at lunch,” she says. “The teachers are intentional about engaging the kids and making sure they take full advantage of the campus.”

At City Day, Waldhoff says her children have built a strong sense of confidence in their own abilities. Without fear of failing, they embrace challenges and rely on the space afforded to them to focus and access higher-order thinking.

“I know in the future they will be prepared for high school and college and beyond,” Waldhoff says. “I like that they are in a tranquil environment that inspires creativity and helps them stay focused and organized, because this feeds into good habits for high school, college and their professional careers. It’s a great foundation to have at such a young age.”

Waldhoff says she can’t overstate the value of City Day, with its small group learning and differentiated instruction — an approach that recognizes and responds to the learning styles of her children and the other students at City Day.

“City Day provides an inclusive community, physical movement and intellectual nourishment — we all feel better when we get that every day,” she says. “Nothing happens by accident, and that intentional respect for kids as whole human beings is so important.”

See Chicago City Day School’s unique campus yourself. Attend the Open House event on Saturday, November 5, 2022. Get details and register now!
Learn more about Chicago City Day School. Visit

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


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