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Greenfields Academy Eyes Lincoln Square for Independent, Private School

By Patty Wetli | March 31, 2014 11:42am
 Greenfields Academy will emphasize group learning and projects, drawing inspiration from Acton Academy in Austin, Texas (pictured).
Greenfields Academy will emphasize group learning and projects, drawing inspiration from Acton Academy in Austin, Texas (pictured).
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Facebook/Acton Academy

LINCOLN SQUARE — Rob Huge is taking the concept of a green field — a project built from scratch, with no restraints or need to consider prior work or established norms — and applying it to education.

The current education structure "was built over 100 years ago to prepare people for factory jobs," said Huge, who, as founder of the forthcoming Greenfields Academy, aims to break that mold.

Huge is looking to open the first of what he ultimately envisions as five to seven Chicago Greenfields locations in Lincoln Square or Lakeview in time for the 2014-15 school year. The academy will operate as an independent, private school, not a charter, he said, with annual tuition of $11,900.

"A lot of the reform movement is 'slow and steady wins the race' and we're losing generations" of students, said Huge, a North Center resident and father of four young children. "I want to do it quickly. This is my shot at building up a viable alternative education system."

While acknowledging that both of the neighborhoods he's scouting for Greenfields "have great examples of public schools and parochial that are running very well," Huge is looking to create an entirely different model of learning.

"Having four children at different stages in traditional schooling convinced me that we needed more non-traditional options for families to choose from," he said.

Within Chicago Public Schools, particularly at the upper grades of elementary schools, students are under intense pressure to qualify for one of the district's several selective enrollment high schools, he said.

"They're not even allowed to get a 'B,'" whereas true innovation and creativity are dependent on failure, Huge said.

"Learning is messy," he said. "I want to create a safe place for failures."

Unlike most parents frustrated with the current state of education, Huge has the experience needed to build a school from the ground up.

He spent 17 years working for Kaplan Education, during which time he oversaw Kaplan's online and regionally accredited colleges, with responsibilities that included opening new locations and implementing new curricula and teacher development policies.

According to the Illinois Coalition of Nonpublic Schools, 14 percent of the states' students attend private schools. Chicago's independent private schools include Latin School and the University of Chicago Lab Schools, as well as Lincoln Square's North Park Elementary School on Montrose Avenue, and Lycée Français, a French bilingual school, that's set to move its campus to Wilson and Damen avenues in 2015.

Huge expects Greenfields will differentiate itself from competitors in both its small class size and unique format.

A Greenfields school will enroll just 80 to 120 students, depending on whether it's K-8 or K-12, he said. Rather than segmenting students by grade, the academy will place students into one of three groups: ages 5-10, ages 11-14 and ages 15-18.

Though the curriculum will consist of core subjects such as reading, math and foreign languages, students will learn at their own pace according to a "mastery-based" approach, Huge said. Students who grasp a concept quickly can move on while those who struggle will be given more time to gain a firm understanding.

"Everyone's going to get an 'A,'" Huge said. "I just can't tell you how long it's going to take them to get there."

Combining Montessori and Socratic methods, along with the latest in technology, Huge intends to steer Greenfields away from teacher-centered, fixed-time classes. Students will drive their own learning, setting weekly goals.

Huge has drawn much of his inspiration from Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, which will support Greenfields' launch.

Founded by Texas oil millionaire Jeff Sandefer — a controversial figure in the Lone Star State — Acton relies heavily on online educational tools such as Khan Academy.

Teachers at Acton are referred to as "guides," with the expectation that they will challenge students to arrive at answers on their own, a practice Huge plans to replicate at Greenfields.

A "founding guide" has already been hired for Greenfields' first year class, with a "lead guide" position still to be filled. Private school teachers do not need to be state certified.

Huge will serve as "head of school," or the equivalent of principal.

Illinois law is relatively lenient in terms of the rules governing private schools, giving administrators a good deal of leeway in terms curriculum. Requirements simply include a minimum number of days/hours of education, teaching to be done in English and background checks on faculty members, among others.

Schools need to have two years of operation under their belt before applying for accreditation, of which there are a variety of types issued by different groups. 

"We are currently evaluating several to see which one is the most inline with our mission," Huge said.

He's funding the school himself, along with a small group of neighborhood investors.

"We all believe in the mission and are willing to put our money where our mouths are," Huge said. "We have committed enough money to cover all operations until such time as tuition will cover the costs."

At its center, a Greenfields education will emphasize project-based learning. Students will participate in both group projects — producing a play, starting their own business, creating a music album — as well as individual "quests."

The arts, sports and vocational pursuits all have a place in this model, according to Huge.

"People who love working with their hands will thrive at this school," he said.

The goal is to develop students capable of directing their own learning, he said, while helping them gain self-knowledge through a focus on character strengths and virtues.

At graduation, a Greenfields student should know "what mark you want to make on the world," Huge said.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Greenfields model is Huge's insistence on no homework, a standard based on his own experience of home-schooling his children during a six-month stay in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama in 2012.

"We spent all this time together," he said, time that evaporated once the family returned to a regular school-day schedule.

"Let's replace [homework] with intentional family time," Huge said. "Let's afford people that time to be with their kids in a meaningful way."

Parents can learn more about Greenfields, which will only accept 5- to 10-year-olds in 2014, at upcoming information sessions: 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sulzer Library, 4455 N. Lincoln Ave.; 6 p.m., April 23, Hamlin Park Clubroom, 3035 N. Hoyne Ave.; and 6 p.m., April 29, Lincoln-Belmont Library, 1659 W. Montrose Ave.