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'More Democratic' School Proposal Pushed by Hyde Park Teachers, Parents

By Sam Cholke | October 22, 2013 8:19am
 Former middle school teacher Lauren Beitler wants to start a more democratic private school in Hyde Park.
Former middle school teacher Lauren Beitler wants to start a more democratic private school in Hyde Park.
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Lauren Beitler

HYDE PARK — A group of Hyde Park teachers and parents fed up with the constant testing and discipline problems in the public schools are trying to start their own more democratic school.

“The kids I was working with brought a lot of problems with them to school, and the traditional school structure was not really helping them,” said Lauren Beitler, who taught middle school at Amandla Charter School in Englewood and other South Side schools.

Beitler became frustrated last year with her role as a disciplinarian and left to teach at the Free School in Albany, N.Y.

The private school has no principal; everything is decided by community consensus. Students get an equal vote, counting the same as their teachers and parents, meaning they have a bit of a say in what is taught, the rules of behavior and how disagreements are settled.

“The kids who had been in the school for a while didn’t really need my help working through their emotional issues,” Beitler said, adding that it was at first odd to see how many of the day-to-day activities the students took up on their own.

Beitler said like the other classes in the school, her students voted on what to study. There were no grades, standardized tests or homework.

“They were like, ‘More algebra, please,’” she said.

Beitler said giving these kids, many them from poor inner-city neighborhoods of Albany, some say in what they wanted to learn changed the entire dynamic.

“As a teacher in this environment, I found I didn’t have to keep a close eye on anyone,” Beitler said. “I found that they can be quite trustworthy and it’s a virtuous cycle where the more you trust them the more trustworthy they become.”

Bietler said she hopes to get a private school started next year that can grow to 60 students and five teachers. She said she thinks it could be a good fit for Hyde Park, Kenwood and Woodlawn students, who have never had much sense of control over their own education.

She is working with a teacher who taught at a Free School in Brooklyn, N.Y., and parents in Hyde Park.

Bietler is holding a meeting for people interested in the school at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Quaker House, 5615 S. Woodlawn Ave.