There’s a certain magic in the hallways and classrooms of a school where students are engaged and teachers feel fulfilled. On the surface, every school, public and private, aspires to this ideal — but it’s the independent school that can achieve it most consistently. While there are many choices for families, independent schools are among the best schools in Chicago.
But what is an independent school, exactly?
“Generally, an independent school is a non-profit school that does not receive government funding and has no affiliation with any larger entity” explains Chris Dow, head of school at Chicago City Day School, an independent JK-8 school on Chicago’s North Side.
“At City Day, what that means is that we are a mission-driven institution. Every decision made by our administration, our board of trustees and our teachers supports the school’s unique mission statement and philosophy. Our parents appreciate the fact that no matter what might be happening in the world, the commitment to our mission does not change.”
While not strictly a requirement, most independent schools are accredited by one or more bodies, such as the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS). Accreditation groups support independent schools to establish and maintain quality standards for students. City Day has earned accreditation by ISACS.
“There are obvious benefits to these organizations, and the accrediting group has standards that City Day meets and exceeds,” Dow says. “Having accreditation ensures that schools are meeting certain standards that we hold ourselves to already.”
Time-honored, yet flexible, curriculum
Independent schools can chart their own course when it comes to academics. City Day has used that freedom to build a curriculum that has a 40-year track record of success.
“We have created an academic program that isn’t tied to momentary concerns or trends,” Dow says. “Our curriculum, which balances core academic classes with experiential learning, has successfully educated students since our founding in 1981.
“A key contributor to that success is that we can allow the curriculum to evolve. We embrace innovation. Our faculty keeps up on the latest thought and practice in education. And when we see a new method that fits with our overall philosophy, it’s easy for us to incorporate it into the curriculum. Often, however, we notice that we have already done our own carefully researched version of it.”
City Day’s faculty consists of master’s-educated professionals who are passionate about their subjects and know how to engage students and stimulate inquiry.
From junior kindergarten through eighth grade, students are taught by subject matter experts. City Day equips these teachers with the resources and freedom to explore their passions with students. This is unique, especially at the elementary level and in the early years.
“In junior kindergarten, to provide just one example, students learn science from a geologist who is passionate about earth science and who spends her summers traveling to national parks and camping with her family, bringing knowledge back to her students each year,” Dow says. “Those same students learn drama in a fully-equipped school theater, where they are taught by a professional actress who has unique insight into dramatic storytelling. These experiences are rare for a junior kindergartner, or even a third grader, and at City Day they are the norm.”
Rich content that stimulates student-led inquiry
When teachers have the freedom to respond to their students’ interests and further explore their passions, they can build on that enthusiasm to engage students more deeply — and encourage independent thinking.
“One teacher developed a mock trial activity that explored the complexities of the protagonist of the novel the students particularly enjoyed,” Dow says. “This format encouraged the students to dive into the varying perspectives from which people may view the character and ultimately judge him. The students loved this uniquely collaborative activity, and it was revisited when reading other pieces of literature.”
Teachers at all levels and in all subject areas have the ability to try new activities in the classrooms at City Day. As a result, faculty burnout at the School is low, Dow says.
“Our teachers believe in the larger mission at City Day. And they can explore exciting opportunities to add to the curriculum or adapt it,” Dow says. “When, after reviewing their ideas, we agree that it’s a good fit for us, there is no larger, bureaucratic entity that stalls the process while approving or denying the request. Simply put, our teachers get to teach, and teach what they know and what they love.”
Engagement despite disruption
During the coronavirus pandemic, every school learned the importance of a rapid response to meet students’ academic and social-emotional needs while making drastic adjustments to the traditional classroom environment. Chicago City Day School remained open throughout the 2020-2021 school year, to the ultimate benefit of the students and faculty.
“Our ability to respond quickly was a huge part of our success last year,” Dow says. “We took every precaution and followed professional medical, scientific and public health guidance. We had the support and resources to do what was needed and were able to do this without controversy, bureaucracy or delay. Administrators, trustees, teachers, and parents worked as a team to get it done.”
Parent support was particularly strong last school year at City Day, and Dow expects that to continue this coming year. Being able to create close relationships with parents is a key advantage for an independent school.
“It starts early, during the admissions process,” Dow says. “We are always honest with prospective families about who we are, what we do, and why. By the time parents enroll their children at City Day, there’s a high level of trust between them and the School.
“When challenges do occur, like the pandemic, we get through them together, in an atmosphere of open communication and mutual respect. It’s a wonderful part of being an independent school.”
The ultimate proof of success for City Day as an independent school lies in the achievements of the students in the classroom today — and those who have graduated and gone on to future success in higher education and life.
“Our graduates are remarkable human beings who go on to achieve success in great high schools and great colleges,” Dow says. “Most importantly, they are good people and it’s wonderful to watch them succeed knowing that this comes from our faculty and families and a school community that has nurtured them throughout their lives. There’s nothing more rewarding or better and we know it’s because we are in control of our own destiny as a school.”
Learn more about Chicago City Day School at chicagocitydayschool.org.