With deep passion and commitment to the importance of early childhood education, Chicago City Day School was founded 40 years as a JK-grade eight elementary school, and it remains so to this day.
“Our JK-through-grade-eight model provides the best experience for discovery and growth,” City Day Head of School Chris Dow said. “That belief has been with us since our founding in 1981, and it continues to inform everything we do.”
There are many reasons why it makes sense for City Day to remain firmly an independent JK-8 school — and some of the reasons aren’t so obvious. Dow walks through the intention behind this decision to honor the school’s founding design and continue to develop each child’s intellectual abilities in a nurturing environment so they can continue on to their high schools and colleges of choice.
Building confidence through small, meaningful transitions
City Day’s age-appropriate surroundings help students build confidence, knowing they are supported and their needs understood by a highly-trained and experienced faculty dedicated to helping students thrive and find their voices.
“An age-appropriate, nurturing environment encourages risk-taking so young students can become self-assured, resilient, and strong individuals,” explains Dow, adding that high school students — who are in their own unique stage of development — also deserve their own space for growth, which is not necessarily achievable when they share space with younger students.
At Chicago City Day School, students in transition years — typically fifth and eighth grade — enjoy mentoring experiences that put them in the role of the older, more experienced student. This allows a unique type of growth for students who are growing in age and maturity.
“Our fourth graders accompany our eighth graders to the Chicago River to carry out environmental work, test the water and observe and remove invasive plant species,” Dow says. “They wade right into the river to check pollution levels, and it’s really cool for the older students to provide that transition to the younger students and give them a sense of the work they have been doing and what it’s all about.”
Sports teams at City Day have fifth grade team managers who can practice with the team and get a feel for competitive athletics, and pre-COVID, seventh and eighth grade students could opt to spend their recess time reading to junior and senior kindergarten students. “Our kinderbuddies, as we call them, is a really special program that demonstrates the communal culture of the school,” Dow says.
Intentionally designed for ages 4 to 14
The physical space at Chicago City Day School was designed and built from the ground up specifically for the ages the school serves.
City Day’s 2-acre campus includes two full-sized gyms, an ice rink, two science labs, art studio, computer labs, makerspaces and a 300-person theater, all purpose-built for its JK-8 student body.
“The physical design of the entire school complements the incremental transitions the students make from junior kindergarten to eighth grade,” Dow says. “The lockers, the desks, the paint colors — even the science labs — mirror the students’ growth. There are elements of the upper grade spaces that beckon back to the early childhood ages as well, so you do always feel like you’re in the same school.”
The value of a transition to high school
In Chicago, where the high school landscape is highly competitive, City Day begins the high school placement process in seventh grade with a placement team dedicated to equipping students with what they need to find the right fit for high school.
“The close relationships we build with our students and families help us advise them through the high school process,” Dow says. “We’ve also had strong relationships with all the great high schools around the city and boarding schools around the country for the past 40 years, which allows us to ensure a good fit for our graduates.”
Nearly all students graduating from City Day attend their first choice high school, with just one or two attending their second choice. “We have always placed our graduates in wonderful high schools where they continue to thrive,” Dow adds.
City Day believes strongly that students should have the transitional experience of joining a new community for high school. Students take their experiences from City Day and are able to join a new school where they are able to make new friends, advocate for themselves, and be leaders with the solid foundation provided by City Day. They are also able to make this age-appropriate transition while still supported by their families at home, rather than having their first major transitional experience happen away from home on college campuses.
“In some other cases, independent school students may be on the same campus with the same classmates from age 3 to age 18,” Dow says. “We want our graduates to have the knowledge that they are prepared for life’s transitions and have the experiences, skills, and confidence to adapt to, and grow from, big changes.”
The bigger picture at City Day is always about providing students with a nurturing environment where they can have the most immersive educational and social-emotional experiences so they are prepared for a lifetime of learning and success.
“We hear from high school admissions about how prepared our students are for high school and this shows in their confidence and ability to advocate for themselves,” Dow says. “We are proud of our supportive and nurturing culture that gets our students ready for this transition to high school.”