The Children’s School, Oak Park, has called the St. Edmund School building home for the past five years. | Amaris E. Rodriguez

After five years in Oak Park, The Children’s School’s time at the old St. Edmund School seems to be coming to an end after the denial of a lease renewal. 

The Children’s School, which helps innate student’s curiosity through a “democratic practice, emergent curriculum, and hands-on projects,” in a nurturing environment, moved to the area following a 12-year stint in Berwyn. 

Despite a “good relationship” with the Roman Catholic church, Pamela Freese, director of administration, said having a renewal of its lease declined came as a surprise. 

“It was a giant shock to us,” Freese said. “We have been a tenant since 2006 and were under the impression that the lease would be renewed based on conversations with everybody that we talked with.” 

For Freese, the partnership was a no-brainer, as the school’s curriculum and style lined up with the church’s teachings. Additionally, Freese said the school has worked hard to establish themselves as a good neighbor, sharing classroom spaces without issues and even investing its own funds into the building. 

In a recent newsletter emailed to parishioners, Rev. Rex Pillai, pastor of Ascension and St. Edmund, and Rev. Carl Morello, pastor of St. Catherine-St. Lucy and St. Giles, told parishioners the decision to not renew the lease for the St. Edmund School property was made by the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese due to the current physical condition of the building.  

“Recently we learned that the building is in need of extensive repairs, repairs which our parish is unable to finance,” read the letter. “Our parish is also unable to financially manage the risk associated with this building while occupied by the school.”  

Wednesday Journal reached out to Pillai, who said that at this time he had “no comments about the school.” 

However, in the Feb. 26 bulletin from Ascension and St. Edmund, which last year joined under one parish with two locations, Pillai and Morello informed parishioners that the physical state of the St. Edmund School was reviewed due to the upcoming lease renewal discussions. 

“Unfortunately, the condition of the building and the overwhelming investment needed to address the condition, is beyond the reach of the community and the Archdiocese,” read the bulletin. “So the renewal of the lease to the Children’s School is not a possibility.” 

According to the bulletin, the parish is moving forward with a structural review and to form new parish councils as well as a finance committee. With more information being collected, a previously scheduled “Faith, Finances, Facilities, and Facts Meeting,” which was supposed to be held across the two combined Oak Park parishes on Monday, March 6, has been canceled. 

“In the meantime, we will be creating our new finance councils in order to include them in the sharing of information and the conversations on how best to move into this next phase of the process of Building a New Reality (BNR).” 

BNR is the second stage of Renew My Church, the archdiocesan wide process reflected in the merging Oak Park’s four Catholic churches into two parishes. 

Besides two roof shingles that fell, which were addressed, Freese said the school does not currently have any safety concerns regarding the building. 

“We knew it was an old building when we moved in,” Freese said. “We don’t have any safety concerns here. It hasn’t changed any since we have been here, to my knowledge, but I’m not a building engineer.”   

When reached for comment, the Archdiocese of Chicago deferred Wednesday Journal  to the bulletin and said those types of decisions are usually made by the parish at large. 

The end of the lease term for The Children’s School is June 30. 

“This is a very big deal for us,” said Christina Martin, Director of Curriculum and Instruction. “I think it wouldn’t be wrong to say that this threatens the future of the school.” 

The school currently enrolls 135 students from grades K-8, with approximately 60 percent of students being local to the Oak Park and surrounding area, said Freese. 

This locality allows the school to dive deep into its community, engaging with local organizations and programs to help strengthen relationships. According to Freese, students have worked with the senior center, stocked community fridges, and worked on conservation efforts at Thatcher Woods, part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County. 

This focus on service is ingrained into the school’s philosophy. 

“School is not something you do to prepare for life later on, it is part of your life when you are a child,” Martin said. “I think we are really connected in the community, and we want to be, it is part of our philosophy and our approach.” 

While the school hopes to reach other agreements with the Archdiocese, including a possible short-term extension or even a longer-term lease where the school financially helps with repairs needed, parents have been notified about the current situation. 

“School is about stability,” Freese said. “That is what parents are looking for in a school, and we felt it was only right to let them know when we knew this issue was on the table.”

Leigh Morgan, a resident of Oak Park, said her family is disappointed the issue with the lease has arisen. 

Coming from a private progressive school in California, Morgan said her family was drawn to the school’s teaching style as it aligned with their style, incorporating progressive, hands-on, project-based learning with a social and emotional emphasis. Location also helped her children learn independence by being able to safely commute to school.

Luke Sindt enjoys his daily commute to The Children’s School, which his mom, Leigh Morgan, said has given him a great sense of independence.

While her eldest daughter has already graduated from the school, the potential location change would impact her 12-year-old son, Luke, a 7th grader at the school who had already begun scoping out the 8th grade classroom. 

Morgan said their family will follow The Children’s School anywhere. 

“It’s his last year and I want him to finish with his peers,” Morgan said. “It is really disappointing to think that he had a particular vision of what next year would look like and that is not probably going to happen anymore.” 

Morgan is hopeful that if the school is closed, the building would be put to good use and continue to add to the beauty of Oak Park. 

“The Children’s School being there is such a great combination of such a wonderful, inventive, creative school community and this magnificent old building, so if the school is not there doing that, bringing that life to it, I wonder what will happen to it,” Morgan said.

Freese said alumni families have expressed disbelief and sadness as the school continues to work in hopes of either coming to an agreement or finding a new location. 

“We do want to continue the conversation with St. Edmund and the Archdiocese as much as they are willing and able,” Freese said. “But we have to be prudent in looking at other options.” 

While there has been talk on other potential sites through the Archdiocese, location has been an issue and Freese said they are trying to be creative and thoughtful in looking at other spaces and potential community partners, emphasizing that they are open to ideas from the community. 

“The school is more than just a building,” Martin said. “We can bring our values and our approach to any space and make it something amazing. I think we are very lucky to have that, but I don’t think that it minimizes the amount of work in identifying and moving an entire school or the hardship or needing to be flexible and needing to use space. It is a heady lift, but I am really confident that we can do it.”

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