The building that once housed St. Edmund School, at the corner of Oak Park Avenue and Pleasant Street in Oak Park, will be bustling with young people again when The Children’s School, a private K-8 institution, starts classes in the fall.
The Chicago Archdiocese closed St. Edmund in 2016 after years of declining enrollment and financial trouble — opening the door for The Children’s School to return to its Oak Park roots. The school signed a five-year lease with the archdiocese.
The Children’s School was founded in Oak Park in 2004 with two teachers and 13 kindergarten and first-grade students inside of two rooms in Gale House, behind Unity Temple.
By the third year, enrollment had grown to 32 students. In 2008, the school moved to the former St. Mary of Celle School in Berwyn, where enrollment had hovered at around 100 for several years.
With the move into the old St. Edmund, The Children’s School can reach its maximum capacity of 135 students within a space that seems perfectly contoured for the kind of progressive, non-conventional education that is the institution’s lifeblood, said Christina Martin, The Children School’s director of curriculum and instruction who also teaches at the school.
“We’re loving our new space,” Martin said during a recent interview. “The location is fabulous. Oak Park is a diverse and progressive community that fits right with our values.”
The move is not quite complete; things still need to be unboxed and organized. Still, the school’s ethos, built on the educational writings of the American philosopher John Dewey (“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself …”), was felt strongly during a recent tour of the building.
One fifth-grade classroom looks like the lounge area of a bohemian cafe, replete with a black leather sofa and a bathtub for seating.
“Our classrooms need to be flexible, with comfortable seating, because we do a lot of discussion and group work and big projects that might take over the whole space so that the tables have to be pushed to the side,” Martin said.
There is a room dedicated exclusively to playing with blocks for kindergarten through second-grade students. They’ll do hands-on learning, such as the construction of a replica human body — the lungs made of two-liter bottles, the bones of papier-mâché, the brain of clay.
“This is a project third-graders did a few years ago,” Martin said of the replica body. “They studied the human body, but instead of just writing a report about the heart or the bones, they also made the organs. Third-graders can learn so much more, so much better when they actually make it, as opposed to just reading or writing about it.”
Martin said that most classrooms feature no more than 15 students, with two teachers per classroom. Students aren’t given standardized tests — or grades. And there’s a deliberate focus on social justice issues.
When The Children’s School begins its first school year in its new space, that sense of freedom will be burnished and refracted through hallways anchored by stained glass and wall-sized windows in most classrooms, flooding the spaces with light and offering views of a world that is, for the children, the classroom.
And with their new location just a block south of the CTA Green Line station, field trips downtown to museums and to places like hospitals and law firms and news rooms (where they can envision themselves in their potential professions) will be much easier, said Pam Freese, the director of administration.
“I think this location is really exciting because of the synergy with the surrounding businesses,” Freese said. “Our kindergarteners typically do a study of community and what it means. As part of that, they’ve made it a point to go visit local businesses and understand that the shop owner down the street is invested in the community, to see how the bakery works, how the restaurant works.”
“School isn’t just something you do to get ready for the world, school is the real-world,” said Martin. “Our kids might visit the Wednesday Journal, see what you guys are doing and decide to write a newspaper. And it’s the teacher’s job help them bring that to fruition.”
A community open house for The Children’s School is scheduled to take place on Aug. 29.