It’s all about community.
Ask an administrator of just about any private school on the North Shore and they’ll tell you kids thrive when they are part of a community of faculty and parents who share the goal of their children not just excelling at academics, but at life itself.
“We combine academic preparation for college and life with a special approach on character formation and building great men,” says Niall Fagan, Head of School at Northridge Prep, an all-boys Catholic school in Niles. “What’s especially unique is the environment of freedom and relationships with teachers who are here to help students grow both intellectually and as a person.”
Fagan says students at Northridge Prep are allowed to be themselves and, combined with caring teachers, can grow as men. The school’s advisor program drives its educational philosophy.
“It starts with the advisor program. Every student has a teacher who they meet with one-on-one on a regular basis and talk about everything to the extent the student feels comfortable,” Fagan says. “We pay a lot of attention to who we hire. The teachers are great role models. They understand the whys behind good ethical living, and all of our teachers see their role as forming young men, not just helping them learn a subject.”
Northridge Prep believes parents are integral to the education of their children, and Fagan says a partnership between faculty and parents is one the keys to success.
“We believe we’re here to serve parents in their role of forming great men. Parents choose us, but the parents are primary educators, and that plays out practically in many ways,” says Fagan. “We very much encourage parents to reach to teachers and teachers to reach out to parents to share what they’re seeing not just on the report card but if they’re seeing growth or areas for improvement.”
At Lake Forest Country Day School (LFCDS), Director of Enrollment, Marketing, and Financial Aid Alex Sheridan says that the 37 different zip codes that students hail from actually contributes to its sense of community.
“It’s a community that’s far more reflective of the greater Chicago area than just the North Shore, and community is who we are,” Sheridan says. “We’re intentionally small by design and the idea is that class size facilitates an understanding not only of who students are as learners, but also who students are as people.”
Sheridan says that small class sizes enable LFCDS to individualize and differentiate instruction not only through an academic and intellectual capacity but also through social and emotional support.
“Central to our ability to do that is the partnership we feel with families,” he says. “Everything that happens at school is only as good as what’s getting reinforced at home, and everything that’s happening at home is only as good as what’s getting reinforced at school.”
When the pandemic emerged early in 2020 and schools in Illinois were ordered closed in March, Fusion Academy in Lake Forest moved on without interruption. The school offers a one-to-one teaching model, and already had plenty of experience offering remote learning for students.
“Throughout the shutdown, our students at Fusion did not miss a beat because we were so used to flipping the switch that we just flipped it and kept it on,” says Cindi Di Iorio, Fusion’s Head of School. Our students continued to have their same teachers and our teaching is one-to-one, whereas many other schools were asynchronous.”
Fusion Academy specializes in providing a learning environment for students who might not thrive in more traditional educational settings. These include students who are gifted or accelerated learners, student with ADHD/ADD or anxiety, and students with challenging schedules.
A guiding philosophy at Fusion is that students don’t take work home. It hosts a Homework Café on campus where students set aside part of the day their follow-up coursework. Replicating the Homework Café online was challenging but doing so had a silver lining.
“Our challenge was continuing to make sure that we lived up to our mission of supporting kids through that independent practice. So, we created a Virtual Homework Cafe space, and in the beginning, it was a little bit of an adjustment for the kids,” Di Iorio says, “Telling them they had to sign into this virtual cafe Zoom room and sit there and do their homework while we watched was a little awkward, but then they started to have social time and the space became vibrant. It was amazing to see the kids because they needed the interaction.”
This summer, Fusion plans to offer individualized classes and tutoring for students who may have fallen behind during the school interruptions due to the pandemic. Because of its educational model, the school is well positioned to help parents and families assess lost learning and fill the gaps.
“We are going to have some summer programs this year that are built around the idea of escaping COVID-19. This is for kids who weren’t at Fusion,” says Di Iorio. “They weren’t necessarily getting the best of instruction and maybe their school doesn’t feel confident that they should be moving on. It’s to make sure that kids are good and ready for the next school year and moving up a level.”
Like Fusion Academy, Forest Bluff School in Lake Bluff was also well-positioned to handle the disruptions caused by the pandemic. As a Montessori School, its flexible learning model helped mitigate the shutdown’s negative impact.
“The Montessori approach is focused on adaptability, which was a very important strength this year and helped us tremendously to respond to this very unusual situation,” says Paula Lillard Preschlack, Head Emerita of Forest Bluff School. “Maria Montessori saw that human beings are very adaptable, and children are extremely adaptable when they’re very young. We were able to use that in how we responded. That was extremely helpful.”
An example of this adaptability, Preschlack says, is the fact that students at Forest Bluff School have been eating lunch outside every day of the current school year, including on cold, winter days.
“Even the little 5-year-olds bundled up. We told the parents to have them wear long underwear and wool socks and hats. It was like having a picnic out in the snow every day and they loved it,” she says. “They really embraced it.”
The Montessori approach is based on the idea that children are active learners, and that if the right environment is created, children will learn to teach themselves, with the guidance of teachers and parents.
“Learners who engage with their own learning process and have an incredible ability to focus their attention and be very organized can collaborate with others,” Preschlack says. “I often see incredible resilience in them because instead of being graded and told what they’ve done wrong by adults, they may actually find their own mistakes through working with the Montessori materials.”
The results, she says, are kids who are very confident and see failure and mistakes as part of their own learning process.
“When they grow up, they’re very eager to try anything and are very courageous about it,” says Preschlack. “I see these young adults doing these really amazing and very difficult things. To me personally, Montessori education is the best way to prepare the next generation for solving problems in our world.”
While Sacred Heart School in Winnetka plans to increase class sizes this year after having to limit class sizes during 2020-2021 school year due to the pandemic, it remains committed to its historical small-class philosophy.
“Our small size is our strength and so we look at our community as a place where everyone knows you,” says Sara Lanser, who heads up marketing at Sacred Heart School. “The school office staff knows you and knows your family. We’re not the biggest school out there. We currently have one class per grade in most grades.”
Lanser says the school’s size allows it to adapt to the individual needs of its students, who include academically advanced kids as well as those who might need a little extra help.
“We’ve got a real individual focus and we’re a STEAM and technology focused school, including a full STEAM lab,” Lanser says. “We really see ourselves as a small school that offers everything in an environment where kids can thrive.”
Private schools aren’t often thought of as neighborhood schools but that’s exactly how Principal Tom Meagher describes The School of Saints Faith, Hope & Charity in Winnetka. Affiliated with The Saints Faith, Hope & Charity Parish, the school is rooted in local, Catholic community.
“Faith Hope is a neighborhood school. We’re a Catholic, faith-based school that provides engaging and challenging academics that prepare students for Loyola Academy, New Trier, and other local schools,” Meagher says. “We’re a school where we want kids to grow mind, body, and soul.”
While affiliated with Faith Hope Parish, Meagher says the school welcomes students from across the community.
“We’re a very welcoming community that seeks to get people and families connected with each other, both to help with programs at school and outside of school,” says Meagher. “We want to support the whole child by allowing families to connect with each other to make ours a strong community.”
Similar to the Montessori approach, for over 100 years Baker Demonstration School in Wilmette has used an experimental learning approach to help kids adapt as they move through school into adulthood.
“When students learn in an environment where they design, create, build, plan, and experiment they are active participants in their own learning,” says Carly Andrews, Baker’s Head of School. “The teacher in this environment serves as a caring, observant who is working with children and ensuring that they are central to the process. The outcome is a deep and abiding curiosity and love of learning.”
At School of St. Mary in Lake Forest, students benefit from an academically challenging and faith-based environment through the school’s affiliation with Church of St. Mary.
“Through our academic philosophy, curriculum, and campus ministry, the School of St. Mary cultivates inspired leaders and instills in students the confidence to think constructively, reason independently, and succeed academically,” says David Wieters, the school’s principal.
Wieters says School of St. Mary’s environment emphasizes small class sizes; nurturing faculty who challenge individuals; differentiated instruction to meet diverse learning needs; supportive and inclusive parish community that models the integration of service and faith into the daily lives of students.
“Our students of yesterday have become passionate leaders of today,” says Wieters. “Many have returned to their roots to share the invaluable gift of their foundational education with children and grandchildren.”