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New Bennett Day School Takes Child-Led Approach

By Alisa Hauser | September 12, 2016 9:54am | Updated on September 12, 2016 4:48pm
 Inside Bennett Day School's new "flagship" campus at 966 W. Grand Ave.
Bennett Day School
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WEST TOWN — A private day school started by a financial executive has opened its flagship campus inside of a turn-of-the-century West Town building and offers a student-to-teacher ratio of 8-to-1, bathrooms in every classroom and skyline views, among other draws.

At 955 W. Grand Ave., Bennett Day School's flagship campus, which currently serves 42 students in kindergarten, first and second grades, will eventually go up to eighth grade and has a capacity of 360,  spokeswoman Christa Reed said.

The school, which is for-profit and does not ask families to pay for technology, lunches or field trips, charges an all-inclusive yearly tuition of $26,944. 

Some 47 percent of the school's students receive financial aid, ranging from $500 grants to full rides, Reed said.

 The view from the gym at Bennett Day School.
The view from the gym at Bennett Day School.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

Between the new campus and the pre-school that opened last year at 657 W. Fulton St. in the Fulton River District, there are 102 students enrolled in the school, which practices the child-led Reggio Emilia approach to learning, emphasizing collaboration and exploration.

Reed offered an anecdote to describe the school's approach to education: Last year, one child told his kindergarten class that he had gone to a pond over the weekend with his family but when asked more about it, did not know exactly how to describe it. Reed said that the students in that class, along with their teacher, discussed how to build a pond.

They used public transportation to get to Home Depot and bought materials to construct a small classroom pond, which eventually contained wheat grass grown from scratch, along with rocks and live minnows and was used as a learning tool throughout the year.

That approach to learning, which Reed said is more structured than Montessori, is also reflected in a "Tinker Lab" where kids can take apart electronics such as VCRs and cellphones.

Bennett Day School founder and CEO Cameron Smith describes the school as the kind that families knew they wanted but it did not exist.

"School is meant to be a community where students and teachers construct learning together," Smith said.

While the school attracts students from as far as Rogers Park, Oak Park and South Shore, the largest contingent, close to a third, hail from Buckown and Wicker Park.

Reed said that the smaller classrooms are important to Bennett parents, some of whom who looked at the Chicago Public Schools in their neighborhoods and were surprised that classes had as many as 35 kids.

At Bennett, classes cap at 15 students and while there is standardized testing, it's done only for internal purposes, Reed said.

A "digital portfolio" available on a private website follows every Bennett student through his or her school experience and includes photos, videos and classroom updates.

Meredith Flagstad, a Bucktown resident and Garden Walk organizer, has three children enrolled in Bennett.

While picking her children up from school Friday, Flagstad said Bennett was her first choice for her children, now in their second year.

"It's exactly the experience we wanted for our kids. There are no independent progressive private schools [in the area] like this," Flagstad said.

Jamie Rauch, a stay-at-home dad who is also from Bucktown, said he comes from a public school background and before learning more about Bennett thought the Reggio Emilia learning method was "hippie dippy baloney."

But after his son's first year in pre-school, Rauch has changed his mind.

"Our son is inspired about school and loves to go and learn," Rauch said.

The flagship campus building, formerly known as Chicago Commons, was built in 1900 as a settlement house modeled after Hull House. It provided housing, schooling and care for local immigrants and moved in 1948 when plans for constructing the Kennedy Expressway immediately north and east of the building began, according to reports.

Bennett Day School's next information session is Oct. 13, according to the school's website.

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