FULTON RIVER DISTRICT — The Reggio Emilia approach to teaching favors education by doing and letting students explore all day via guided free-study led by "teachers ... [who] consider themselves to be co-constructors of learning."
That's why Bennett Day School, a swanky private pre-kindergarten through "senior kindergarten" school opening for the next school year at 657 W. Fulton St., has its storefront classrooms encircling a white-walled "TinkerLab," where founder and CEO Cameron Smith says students will be "having a really hands-on, projects-based experience."
The Reggio Emilia approach focuses, in part, on developing a student work portfolio throughout each child's educational career. Smith said that has attracted interest from parents who are "already asking about high school and college enrollment" for their toddlers.
Lizzie Schiffman discusses the private day school on DNAinfo Radio:
"Our school's all about learning by doing. It is a collaborative-based approach to self-directed learning," he said. "Part of that is having a place to tinker. The TinkerLab has a number of different natural materials as a canvas for the kids — it's really a canvas for the kids to develop.
"So you have wood planks on the wall, plywood on these walls, pegboard. This is idea paint so it's dry erase, it's meant to display and to reflect on the kids' work," he said. "So often in school you don't pause and say what did we look at? What are you interested in?"
At Bennett, which will start with classes for students ages 2 through 5 this fall and ultimately serve grades pre-K through eighth, students begin each day with a "morning meeting" with their head and secondary teachers, where they will "declare their intent for the day."
Preliminary tuition costs range from $17,748 for half-day pre-kindergarten to $24,205 for full-day senior kindergarten classes, plus a $2,500 new student fee.
Smith says he founded the school because he wanted to find an alternative education approach for his own children without having to leave the city.
It's great for "anybody who works in the Loop," said Smith, of Lincoln Park. "I wanted to spend more time with my kids, and didn't want to live in the suburbs. ... [At Bennett], you can commute with them, and on Fridays one adult from each house or family is allowed to come to the school, so even busy parents can come have lunch with their kids on a Friday."
His partners in Bennett Day School are Shuchi Sharma and Kate Cicchelli, the school's principal and Chief Academic Officer. Cicchelli, a Bucktown resident, was previously a teacher leader at the Francis W. Parker School.
Smith's day job is in finance. Sharma, of Ukrainian Village, also has a business background, though she's worked with a series of educational and child-focused organizations, most recently managing ADI Pediatric, a child-centered behavioral health and wellness practice in Arlington Heights.
Also involved in getting Bennett off the ground are investors like serial entrepreneur Howard Tullman and Obama tech adviser Harper Reed, Crain's Chicago Business reports.
Smith and Cicchelli's children will be among the first students at Bennett, bringing full circle Smith's goal when he started this project in 2010 to create a school he'd "be proud to send [his] children to."
The location in the Fulton River District, more than a mile from any other early childhood education centers, will make the school appealing to parents who live on the Near West Side, work Downtown, or commute at all near the West Loop, Smith said.
"Both our location and our educational methods are filling a need," in the city and the neighborhood, Smith said.
For recess and other outdoor educational activities, the school will use Trio Park, a small "pocket park" tucked away behind Carnivale restaurant. As the incoming class ages into elementary and middle school classes, Smith said the school hopes to open a second building nearby in the West Loop within the next two years.
Pre-elementary classes will have up to 15 students with two teachers per classroom. Older grades will have about 20 students per classroom. Every Friday will be a half day so teachers can meet to check in on student progress and work on professional development.
The name nods to Smith's grandmothers Bess and Bernice Bennett, who both "were not college educated, and around the time of the Depression helped start family companies."
Bernice worked to put both of her brothers through college, and Bess started a business collecting rags and scraps from clothing factories to use as insulation in construction.
Today, that company, Fishman & Sons, is the one of the largest flooring distributors on the East Coast, Smith said.
"They really embodied grit, perseverance, creativity — the kind of traits we're really trying to encourage in our kids."
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