News & Politics » Feature

Class Dismissed

The Children's School has done away with schedules, homework, discipline, and every other sign of a conventional classroom. Is there anything left?



By Grant Pick

At the traditional American school the academic day begins with the sound of a bell. A teacher shepherds a flock of students to their clean-topped desks in an ordered classroom. Mr. or Ms. Somebody then stands at the blackboard and teaches a lesson. If it's first period, it must be math.

At the Children's School in Evanston a day begins with "couch time," a gathering of souls--from 6-year-old Emma to 47-year-old Lyn Lesch, the school's founder--around a blue floral sofa. It's 9:15 or thereabouts; no one's too exact about the time, and to be sure there's no bell.

Students at the Children's School avoid subjects but pursue "interests"--a math concept, an art project, the skin texture of lizards--powered by nothing more than their own curiosity. Each month the 15 students identify fresh interests, and the faculty--Lesch and his two colleagues, Joyce Elias and Amy Luckey--forage for books and materials. The March interests include Mars, whales, astronomy, slavery, Asia, the circus, international cooking, and endangered animals.

"Here's a book on threatened animals," Luckey tells the group at the morning gathering, "and here's a list of some of them. There seem to be quite a few in the west, in California." Lesch displays a book on civil rights.

Elias shows off Goosebumps, a card game based on R.L. Stine's popular mystery series that has players make up stories from words shown on the cards. "This might be good for kids who need work on their spelling," Lesch suggests gently. He next presents a poster-board diagram he's come up with for the endocrine system, with kidney beans for the kidneys and a balloon for the bladder. Then there's a brief exchange on galaxies and the ideas of physicist Stephen Hawking.

"Name me a galaxy besides our own," says Lesch.

"Andromeda," responds Alec Boyle, a 13-year-old in a Lion King T-shirt. "We live off in a corner of our section of the universe where the biggest galaxy is the Milky Way."

As Alec answers, Lesch blows up a glittery balloon that illustrates the birth and death of a star. Then he holds up more books. "Here's one on stars and another on marine biology," he says. "Look--a biography of Sally Ride. Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't she the first woman in space? That's it for the books. If you choose to do some math or writing today, you probably want to get at it sooner or later. Put your chairs back before you leave, would you please?"

In the universe of American education the Children's School is, shall we say, out there. The teachers function as near equals to their students. The kids routinely engage in what's called "peer education," wherein the more advanced help the struggling. There are no grade levels, no dictated curriculum, no grades, no mandatory attendance, no athletic teams, and no homework.

"The idea here is that kids show up and develop a sense of ownership in what they do and learn," says Lesch, the self-effacing man who founded the school five years ago. "You can't go much farther out than this. The next stop would be having your kids at home in the rec room."

Education on the fringe was once more acceptable than it is today. The 1960s and 70s saw a craze for schools modeled on the theories of Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who grouped together children of differing ages and let them progress at their own pace. The writings of Scotsman A.S. Neill popularized the ideas behind Summerhill, an English boarding school he established in 1924 on principles of student self-governance and no formalized instruction. For a while every big city and rural commune had a Neill-like "open classroom" or two.

Today Montessori schools have become staples of pedagogy, almost mainstream. The open classrooms have faded into the background amid a national cry for accountability. In March President Clinton came before a conference of U.S. governors and business leaders who convened in New York to support national standards that all students would have to meet via state competency tests. Locally, Mayor Daley's School Reform Board of Trustees is putting on notice schools that post lousy test scores and is piloting "direct instruction," a rote teaching method that's boosted achievement in several districts, notably in Houston.

"They're asking educators to bring kids up to a certain test score," says Lesch. "That's where I think these people are indictable. Clinton and his businessmen should talk about putting learning in children's hands, about making them healthy, happy, and whole. But no one's going to get on TV and say that, not anymore."

The Children's School occupies a two-room suite at the Lake Street Church of Evanston, a Baptist place of worship south of the suburb's downtown. A spacious main room fronting the street contains the couch and sections or stations devoted to this activity or that. Illustrations of the bloodstream, galaxies, and apples adorn the yellow walls. Computers and printers crowd a passage to a smaller room furnished with chairs and another sofa that are ideal for reading.

At the edge of both rooms are wooden desks belonging to individual children, each piled high with books and materials. "Having a nice unique desk gives a child a sense of ownership," Lesch says. The Children's School has no standing library to speak of, only a table in the main room stacked with a dictionary, a one-volume encyclopedia, and other reference books. Lesch treks to the Evanston public library every afternoon to check out volumes on topics intriguing to his students. At any one time he can have only 19 books credited to his library card, "and I'm always right at the limit," he reports.

The school is loosely structured. Luckey, a former suburban public school teacher, conducts a French lesson two mornings a week (she got the assignment because she minored in the language in college). Gym is once a day. The afternoon brings lessons in spelling and reading. The lunch hour is whenever you want to eat.

For most of the day the teachers simply make themselves available at the math table or the art area. When children wander over and sit down, a teacher will offer help in plumbing a subject. At the math table, Lesch employs Cuisenaire rods, a system of counting sticks, to impart arithmetic principles. He favors a stamp game familiar at Montessori schools (the stamps are actually poster-board squares) to clarify long division. To teach spelling and reading, Lesch and Elias, a onetime park district art teacher, rely on the Spaulding method, a phonetic technique invented by a brain surgeon and neuropathologist named Samuel Orton in 1925 and kept alive by an Oregon-based foundation devoted to his thought.

Lesch and his teachers may suggest that a child approach an interest, that the time has come, but they never use force or intimidation. "Participation is completely optional," says Lesch. "It's not worth it to say you should do this, or you must do that. So you might not come to math for years. So what? That's a trade-off worth making if you are to be your own person." He supposes that "at any one time 60 percent of the kids are choosing to do something and are applying it in practice."

One parent comes in weekly to hold a dance class; another teaches knitting. At a weekly "writers conference" led by Elias, children read out loud stories and essays they have written, then there's discussion. Often projects stretch over many days. After a field trip to the circus at the Medinah Temple, Elias brought in a book on a model circus sculptor Alexander Calder once made, and the school decided to make a circus of its own. Out of pipe cleaners and plastic eggs the kids crafted performers--trapeze artists and belly dancers--as well as an audience that included Van Gogh, Dennis Rodman, and Lisa Loeb, and one morning they put the whole affair to music. "It was a Mr. Bill-type thing," says Elias.

Field trips take place on Friday. "The kids have the final say," explains Chris Imhoff, the parent who coordinates the trips. "It can be the most educational thing in the world, but if they say no we don't go." The school's visited the Adler Planetarium, Rosehill Cemetery to see Civil War graves, and a miniature golf course.

The defining elements of traditional schooling--homework, tests, grades--are considered out of step with the school's it's-up-to-you philosophy. Only if a child requests homework is any given. "The kids only do things that come from them," says Lesch. There are no tests, he says, because "the message given by tests is, you're taking this test to meet my standards, not for yourself." Likewise, grades are viewed as having more to do with the teacher or the school than with the student.

Every few weeks Lesch does make up a list of lessons and projects that the students have been dealing with. The March census contained 152 items, from reading about beetles and identifying teeth on a dental X ray to going on the cemetery field trip. Lesch checks off everything a child has participated in and sends the list home to the parents. It's his version of an assessment.

After the initial couch time, the youngsters drift off to an activity, chat for a while, or in a couple of cases do practically nothing. For all its intellectual content, the morning has a desultory quality to it that suggests the way many adults spend their evenings at home, shifting among tasks and pleasures and conversation.

In the small room nine-year-old Sarena Bernstein catches up with her mother, Chris Imhoff, who's breast-feeding a younger daughter as she balances her checkbook. As Alec Boyle sits down to read a manual to the computer game Battletech, Imhoff says, "Alec, I have an article I meant to bring you about Mars, but I forgot it." A girl snuggled in a chair reads a novel as New Age music wafts from a radio placed in the passageway.

"Yesterday I finished identifying all the prime numbers up to 100," states Andy Hazlett, who is ten and is seated at the math table in the main room. "If I suspected a number was a prime number I'd try to divide it into two other numbers, and if I couldn't it had to be a prime number, as I thought. A prime number is a figure that can only go into one and itself."

Andy's sister Abby, who is 13, is mulling over a story written by a classmate. "Help, help, help, a Valley girl is getting totally ready to eat me," Abby reads out loud. Something in the phrasing of this story irks Abby, and she says to Lesch, "This stuff isn't good." Lesch, who's been assisting a boy with the Montessori math game, gives Abby a long look. "Sure the sentences are short, but they are good. There is effort going on."

Lesch helps 11-year-old Sutton Crawford, the student who's been here longest, with a review she's written of the play A Raisin in the Sun. Soon he is discussing the endocrine system with Abby. "Do you remember what the renal artery is?" he asks Abby, who seems perplexed. "I get confused between the vein and the artery," she tells Lesch. "What's the difference again?"

Elias is leading a round of Goosebumps with a half-dozen youngsters arrayed around a table covered in red plastic. The story that keeps getting embellished concerns a pizza with worms on top, bits of slime, and "stinky soup." When his turn comes to enlarge on the tale, Tyler, who's Alec's seven-year-old brother, has a tough time contributing a new twist. "Um, um," Tyler hesitates, and Andy quickly jumps in with some help. "Tyler, I know this is kinda hard." A comforted Tyler suddenly finds his muse. "A wolf was howling, and he ate the slime that was on top of the wormy pizza . . . "

Back in the small room, Alec is holding forth about pizza. "It's sacrilegious to put pineapple on pizza. What about sweet corn? They do that in England." He looks over at Sameera Zerang, 9 (daughter of composer Michael Zerang), who's carving an apple and spooning yogurt. "Everyone knows that peach is the best flavor of yogurt," Alec says. "You know what's disgusting, Sameera--cold herring. The best fish, everyone knows, is fried perch." Sameera disagrees. "The only kind of fish I like is turtle."

The chatting disturbs Luckey, who is reading a picture-book version of Moby Dick to two girls, among them young Emma, and she shushes Alec.

Just before 11 o'clock Suzy Crawford, who's Sutton's mother, delivers McDonald's lunches to her daughter, Abby, and Andy. Luckey is conducting a French card game with Sarena. Alec, noting the seemingly disconnected events, remarks, "Say Amy, what's the expression for cheeseburger in French-- "beef of cheese'?" Luckey ignores the question.

Tyler has unsnapped some plastic tubs, revealing a lunch of tuna, crackers, and a Ding Dong. One girl eats risotto. Another girl in a pink top stops consuming onion rings from a plastic bag and for no apparent reason bolts from the room crying.

A thin, smiling man who favors open shirts and cotton pants, Lyn Lesch toils from 7 AM until after the sun sets in monklike service to his school. Home is a Rogers Park studio apartment that a friend calls "a crash pad--basically a place to sleep and shower." He reads voraciously on what he calls "deep philosophical subjects." (Splurging for him is spending $5.95 for a paperback," says his younger brother, Donald "Chip" Lesch. "Lyn always goes to the library.") His other form of recreation is taking a solo jog. "Outside school," says Lyn Lesch, "I'm a compulsive loner."

Lyndon Lesch, Lyn's father, was a real estate manager at the University of Chicago and then a leasing agent of high-rise office space, including the then newly opened Prudential Building. He was 54 years old when Lyn, his first child, was born. His mother Virginia was around 40. "Because my parents had me and my brother so late in life we became all the more special to them," says Lyn. "We had the best childhood you could imagine." Chip Lesch says his older brother was "a well-rounded kid who was into everything."

Except, perhaps, his education. "School bored me a lot," says Lesch of his time in the Chesterton, Indiana, public schools. "The classes didn't relate to the subjects that gripped me. Whether the blame lay with the teaching or with me, I can't say now--probably it was a little bit of both. When I wanted to know something, I consulted the World Book. My love of reading fell off as I got older, and once I went to high school it was no better. I remember the English teacher I had junior and senior year and how he took good books and put me to sleep with them."

A talented runner in high school, Lesch was recruited to Kalamazoo College, where he ran cross-country, majored in psychology, and fell under the spell of such existential writers as Albert Camus and Herman Hesse. A stint counseling disturbed children at a Chicago residential treatment center confirmed Lesch's desire to teach, and he enrolled at Indiana University to earn his credentials.

Friends from his university days describe Lesch as a well-mannered man who drove a Volkswagen, cared nothing for luxuries, and embraced J. Krishnamurti, a philosopher whose teachings clarified his self-definition. "Other people always came first with Lyn," says Scott Steinman, a recording engineer (and now Joyce Elias's husband) who roomed with Lesch in 1975. "It's the same now. This guy doesn't have an ego as you and I know it. He's not driven by his car or his clothes--by status--but by what he can accomplish in a moral, revolutionary way."

Lesch became a teacher at the Chicago Urban Day School, a Montessori school in Englewood. "Lyn was one of the best teachers we've ever had," says director Georgia Jordan. "He was extremely sensitive, and the children loved him. He led them toward their own interests, but he never forced the issue. He had this uncanny ability to know where a child was." When Lesch had Jordan's granddaughter as a pupil, he told the director it was OK, in fact appropriate, for her to hug the girl at school, that the girl needed the affection. "That softened me right up," Jordan says.

In time, though, Lesch found the Montessori method too restrictive. "Maria Montessori conceived of her theories long ago, and so kids arrive at her schools with the methodology set in stone," Lesch contends. "You as the teacher are the authority figure, because you're there to impose the Montessori method. If you're the child you're being set up--learning isn't really your own. I feel learning must be in the hands of the learner."

In coming to this thinking Lesch was influenced by A.S. Neill and also John Holt, a onetime fifth-grade teacher who derided standardized teaching procedures and, before his death in 1985, had become the nation's leading advocate for home schooling. The biggest influence on Lesch, however, was George Dennison, whose book The Lives of Children detailed how he established a tuitionless open-classroom school in lower Manhattan in the 1960s.

In the late 80s Lesch shifted to the Montessori school in his hometown, but the experience was a failure. "The curriculum in Chesterton was all adult-controlled," he says. "The children walked down the hall in lines. I just hated it. It became clear then and there that I didn't want to be a traditional teacher." Differences developed with the principal, and Lesch returned to Chicago determined to launch his own school.

"The Montessori schools had provided Lyn with latitude," muses Scott Steinman, "but in the end he found his belief in providing custom education was nonnegotiable." In 1990, while working as a resource teacher for Georgia Jordan in Englewood, he set out to realize his dream. He posted a bright orange flyer and a six-page essay on his educational goals at north-side and North Shore libraries and coffeehouses, and he held informational meetings in a rented room at the Wilmette library.

Suzy Crawford plucked one of Lesch's flyers off a kiosk near the Evanston library. "The flyer mentioned A.S. Neill, who was kind of a hero of mine," recalls Crawford, a restaurant manager. "Since I was 17 years old I've doubted the effectiveness of public education." If Crawford's own leanings weren't enough, her daughter had weathered a brief and unfortunate exposure to regular school. "Sutton spent two weeks in public kindergarten, which was disastrous," Crawford explains. "They told her to shut up, sit down, and follow the rules--she just wasn't used to that kind of thing."

After some months Crawford turned up at a Lesch meeting in Wilmette. She was sufficiently taken by him to begin calling area churches seeking space for a school, and when the Lake Street Church of Evanston agreed to lease Lesch the small room, the Children's School was born.

The going was rough. During the fall of 1991 the school roster consisted of just Sutton and another girl, and after she and Sutton battled the other girl dropped out. "There was Sutton, this brave little girl of mine, as the only student," says Crawford, who went on a frantic recruitment drive that eventually drew in three new children. But Lesch had to ask one boy to leave because he acted out badly, yelling and hitting. "What I was really doing back then was group therapy," Lesch says. "This wasn't a school at all, though I used to pretend that it was."

With tuition at $300 a month for each youngster, the Children's School barely survived that first year. Chip Lesch, the Harvard-educated chairman and CEO of Indiana Federal Bank in Valparaiso, and his wife loaned Lyn money to keep the school afloat. "Lyn's tough when he needs something--he doesn't come right out and ask--so we learned to read the buzzwords," Chip says. Chip considered the underwriting a privilege. "My brother is one of the most principled people to walk the earth, someone who finds incredible fulfillment in helping others, who'd rather give a present at Christmas than get one. Personally I wish I had more of his qualities, but then I'm in a different profession, which, unfortunately, too often prizes different qualities."

By the second year the Children's School had six students, most of whom had been home-schooled before enrolling. Four more signed for the following season. "Gradually it got to be a real program," says Lesch.

He's learned some lessons. A teacher last year interceded too much and he had to dismiss her. In admitting students Lesch now avoids prospects with learning disabilities and those who exhibit too great a need for adult control. "Here those kids would be reeds in the wind," he says.

At about 11:15 each Thursday the Children's School convenes in the small room for the weekly meeting, at which the students and teachers raise issues and express concerns. Disputes are settled with a vote. "We consider that the kids and the teachers are equal here," says Lesch. "Not equal in terms of their capabilities, but in most situations they have the same rights."

The job of meeting chairman shifts among the students. The presiding officer this week is Andy Hazlett, a veteran with the gavel. "It doesn't make me nervous running the meeting," Andy will say later. "Actually, the meetings are the funniest thing in the world. My main concern is always that everyone's side of the story gets heard."

Andy, looking spiffy in a blue-and-white-striped turtleneck, settles into an armchair and a silence falls over the assemblage. Lesch breaks the quiet by prompting Andy, "OK, sir, establish your presence so we can get going."

The first issue is the end-of-day cleanup, whether it should be assigned by tasks, divided into teams and rooms, or executed in the free-form arrangement that now prevails. Alec and Sutton contend the school should revert to a task-oriented system, the old way of doing things, but Tyler disagrees. "We should keep it the way it is because it's fairer," says Tyler. Abby Hazlett makes the point that however the cleanup is done, there should be consequences for those who don't sweep and wipe down the tables.

When Lesch comments without waiting to be recognized, Andy barks, "Lyn, raise your hand!" A chastened Lesch puts up his arm and Andy nods, indicating that the head of the school can now speak. "Just as an outside observer, it seems to me that the rooms have never been cleaner than they are now," offers Lesch.

It comes down to a vote, and after two ballots the school decides to clean by teams.

"OK," says a relieved Andy, "now we can start on a new topic."

Elias voices her irritation that some youngsters have been using markers simply to make colored water. The culprits have contended that preparing the colored water is actually an experiment, but Elias is skeptical. "How can we get these people off a doubtful activity and, instead, direct them into something that relates to why we are here, like math, science, or reading?"

"This is a problem, but I don't see how we can regulate what we do here," offers Abby.

Differing with Elias, Lesch wonders if, in fact, making the colored water does have some redeeming value. "Somebody may be doing some bona fide work in science. Maybe we shouldn't be putting a value judgment on what is really a cool experiment."

Attention turns to the actual colored-water practitioners, who are identified as Tyler and Noah Frederick, who is nine. Sutton takes Tyler to task for wasting 60 cotton balls by dipping them in soup. The offenders are reluctant to discuss their motives, but finally Tyler asserts, "I'm not doing this anymore. I stopped--so stop complaining."

"My point is that doing this all day long gets tedious," says Elias. "Personally I find this difficult to deal with. I would like you all to work on stuff besides colored soup."

The meeting diverges into observations about art. "I've seen some Picassos that were absolutely appalling," says Alec.

"But that was his style," differs chairman Andy.

"I've seen people create a pile of boogers," says Tyler, and the school, at least its preteen element, dissolves into laughter.

"This is getting out of hand," says Andy sternly. "Everybody is breaking up. This isn't a joke time. This is a meeting."

Elias says there's no reason that the soup problem needs to be voted on, that the soup makers can police themselves. But Lesch adds, "This whole matter raises another question--does somebody have the right to stay on one thing all day? That's a big question, I know. We better take that up at another meeting."

This meeting winds down. It's decided by general agreement that students can come to the writers conference only if they have writing to share, except for a grace visit once a month. An election is held for the Children's School student council, a rotating trio of older youngsters who tutor their younger fellows and listen to them read. Luckey will announce the results by day's end.

"Meeting adjourned," Andy finally says with great authority.

The reasons why parents selected the Children's School for their offspring are invariably rooted in dissatisfaction over the education they'd received themselves. Bill Frederick, a carpenter who's Noah's father, also speaks for his wife, editor Lyn Rosen, when he says, "We were both misfits in school. I was bored much of the time--I looked at the clock or out the window. Both of us learned most of what we know sitting around the family dinner table." Chris Imhoff, Serena's mother, recalls her years in the Park Forest public schools and says, "In large part I learned to be a good student--to take the test, to spit out the answers--rather than to think for myself. A lot of students, girls especially, learn to buckle under and do what's expected of them. They aren't encouraged to think for themselves."

Invariably the traditional system gets blamed for being too authoritarian. "I hated school from start to finish because of the rigidity, the punishment," says Denise Boyle, a homemaker who is Alex and Tyler's mother. "I was afraid to make mistakes. I had the hardest time with long division--this vicious nun humiliated me." Architect Ken Hazlett, who is Andy and Abby's father, attended public schools in suburban Pittsburgh. "The education system was designed for the factory era, and now it's stuck back in the 19th century. For decades we've brought up children to obey Big Brother."

The parents may have opted out of other schools for their children. The Hazletts, for instance, enrolled Abby, their oldest, at the Chicago Waldorf School, which follows an arts-intensive program in which one teacher sticks with the same class through eighth grade. "While the Waldorf school had many things to recommend it," says Helen Hazlett, a business trainer, "the process was still adult-oriented and didn't take into account individual differences."

For several years the Hazletts home-schooled Abby and Andy. "I would read to the kids for a half hour to two hours, and then they were free to pursue what they wanted," says Helen. "We did dioramas and fantasy plays. If they asked me about something I'd take the opportunity to share information. Otherwise my presence was minimal. If I tried to sit down and give them formal lessons I hit a brick wall."

When Abby was nine she told her parents she wanted to attend a school so she could be around kids besides Andy and appear more normal to her neighborhood companions. (Abby's sentiments square with Lesch's reservations about home schooling. "If by the age of seven all the other kids on your block are going off to school, and you aren't, what kind of message does that send about being your own person? A harmful one, I think, because so much of school is about being independent." ) If school it was to be, the Children's School most nearly fit the mind-set of the Hazletts, and so off went Abby and Andy.

Alec Doyle attended kindergarten and first grade at a Buffalo Grove public school, but he had a poor teacher, says his mother, and developed stomachaches. "I just don't want to go today," Alec told his mother, and she pulled him out. For four years Denise Boyle home-schooled Alec, and then the boy rebelled. "Every time I'd approach a subject he'd roll his eyes," says Denise. "When I'd say "You better do your math,' he'd stare out the window and bite his nails." It was time for a more regular setting, and when the family happened on the Children's School it felt just right. They put their house in Buffalo Grove up for sale and moved to Skokie. Younger brother Tyler briefly tried out the local public school, but on his fourth morning he balked at going and he's been with Lesch ever since.

By and large, the Children's School families express satisfaction. "My kids are very happy with Lyn," says Helen Hazlett. "You can't get them to leave when the day is over." The lack of tests and grades is of no consequence to her. "Tests don't measure what they're supposed to anyway--teachers just end up teaching to the test. Grades don't tell you how a student is really doing. They're an extrinsic reinforcer, meaning a child is working to earn an A and not because he loves learning about dinosaurs or writing or whatever." Hazlett says it's a definite plus that children are all grouped together, instead of in grade levels, because each youngster can proceed at his or her own pace, unrestrained by age.

The parents consider it an advantage that their youngsters miss the head-butting socialization that comes with being in a class of 25 or more peers. "Even with 15 kids in all, you're still learning how to get along," insists Chris Imhoff. "Actually, you have more time to interact, because you aren't always being told to sit down and be quiet. You have to work out any disagreement right away." Bill Frederick says the Children's School more closely duplicates life, "where you're dealing with all-age people." His wife Lyn Rosen is impressed that there's "no condescension and very little sexism" in a school where all the kids, no matter what their ages, get up close and personal.

The random nature of the learning is also viewed positively. "You have to have faith in your child's innate ability to get what he needs," says Rosen. "Noah is on his own schedule, not some schedule dictated from outside. He picked up addition and subtraction at four years old, but he only learned to read this year, at eight. You kind of have to go with the flow, because we feel that anything learned because he wants to know it is more meaningful than information imposed from above by a command figure."

Gaps in a youngster's knowledge base can be made up down the road, say the parents. "You can always learn rote things, like Roman history, later on," says George Trimborn, a computer instructor who is Alex and Tyler's father. Adds Elias, whose own eight-year-old son, Timothy, attends the school, "You have to look at this as a balancing act going on over several years. A child that's not reading or writing may be creating novels eventually. It's just that the sequence isn't what you'll see in a regular school."

While the parents are largely true believers, an occasional worry surfaces. Elias wonders about there being no tests. "Tim's going to have to face tests one day, and I'm concerned about that," she allows. Chris Imhoff frets that perhaps Sarena needs to master more facts, especially in math. "Math may have to be approached in a more programmatic way," she says. "You can't just do it every two weeks--it takes practice--and Sarena has avoided it to some extent. I've talked to her about this." When Imhoff raised the issue with Lesch, he suggested that she not force math on Sarena. Imhoff now figures her daughter will turn to math when she's ready, as she turned to reading.

After the weekly meeting, those who care to descend to the church gym, where some boys toss around balls. "More than anything gym here serves as a release," says Lesch as he watches the action. "It's free play. I doubt my crew would go in for organized games."

The gym is also the site of the annual school play. "I write the script," says Lesch, "and everyone pitches in to do the scenery and costumes. Who gets which part is negotiated out among the kids. If there's a conflict, the teachers decide the issue." Last year's presentation was Alice in Wonderland, with Andy as the Mad Hatter and Alex as the Caterpillar.

Back upstairs at 12:45, everyone congregates on the couch, where Lesch and Elias lay out the afternoon. Lesch announces that he will lead a session for older kids in the Spaulding method, and Elias is going to set up a still life that youngsters can draw using pastels. "But if there's anything else you want to draw you can," Elias adds.

There isn't--six kids gather at Elias's table in the main room and begin to render bananas, oranges, and a pudding box.

Abby, Alec, Sutton, and other older kids take up chairs in the small room for a session in the Spaulding method. Lesch throws out words like "provision" and "adequate" and the youngsters spell them, causing Alec to harp at how easy the words are. "Are you insulting us intentionally?" Alec wonders. When Lesch calls out "consideration," Alec gets even lippier. "This is really degrading, Lyn. At least you're not giving us "good' or "hello."' Actually, Alec is having trouble spelling some of these words, and when Lesch checks Alec's work he tenderly makes the necessary corrections.

A collection of model figures called Alien City takes up a section of the main room, and now Andy, Noah, and a couple of other boys launch an imaginary game there. Luckey has a new game of Goosebumps going on the couch. Lesch concludes Spaulding with his older group and begins a session with a younger bunch. Alec picks up a book called Atoms, Molecules and Quarks as Abby leafs through the Tribune's KidNews section.

"OK, come on over," says Lesch at 2:15, summoning the school back to the couch. Tyler makes a short presentation on octopuses, and the results of the council election are announced. Sutton, Sarena, and Sameera emerge as the victors, prompting someone to crack, "It's a good day for S words." Lesch asks for input on which books he should return to the library. Cleanup proceeds in teams, as the weekly meeting determined it would, and the day ends with the youngsters moving downstairs for their parents to pick them up at three o'clock.

On a spring Friday afternoon, Abby sits on the open third floor of her family's house in northwest Evanston. The floor is dominated by Andy's pursuits, among them a complex of Legos and some odd pets, including frogs, a chameleon named Jackson, and an anole, a type of lizard.

Abby's favorite interests are writing stories, doing art, and reading in the small room. "I used to love math, but I haven't done much this year. I haven't been to the math table in three weeks, but next year I'll be doing more because Lyn will be getting me ready for high school."

Outside school, Andy takes a tae kwon do class with the park district, but other than babysitting Abby has no extracurricular activities. "There's nothing that grabs me," she confides. She does hang out at the local Barnes & Noble, and she and her friends from the Children's School frequently go to the mall.

"Sometimes it's hard to be with kids who aren't from the Children's School," Abby says. Once some friends she was with at Disney World got to talking about tests, and Abby found herself going mute. "They were things I couldn't relate to," she says. She remembers having homework only once. "Lyn gave me an assignment. He handed me this book about birds and said I should locate them outdoors and write about them. It was fun. I think I finished the assignment."

She adds, "I used to wonder what it would be like to go to a regular school, and recently I began to wonder again. For instance, my experience is limited with having people dislike me. How would I deal with that? I don't know."

Alec, curled on a sofa at his house in Skokie some days later, has a more negative take on what a traditional school is like. "I've been in a regular school environment, going to different subjects," he says, recalling a summer school he'd attended in Palatine, "and it was standable. But there were parts I didn't like. In the lunchroom you were with kids talking together about the group across the table, and it was so uncivilized."

Like Abby, Alec avoids math in school and hasn't taken a test since first grade in Buffalo Grove. "A test is a piece of paper with questions on it," he asserts. "I don't care what they are like." He considers gym "a complete waste of time" and rarely if ever participates.

Sometimes Alec can assume a blase air, yet overall he seems pleased with his situation. "The coolest thing that I've done at the Children's School is to write a couple four-page stories," he says, "one about a space race and another about a dragon named Jade." Alec has also enjoyed dissecting animals--a frog, a turtle, and a fetal pig--though he faults Lesch for getting too enthusiastic about it. He frequently gets contentious with Lesch, of whom he comments, "Lyn's too much of a disciplinarian. When he acts in charge it's annoying."

A younger student, Sarena gets boosterish when describing the school. "You're always learning something at the computer table or the math table, or you're just reading books," she says one afternoon in her kitchen in Rogers Park, munching on a veggie pocket pie. "You're always learning something. I take French with Amy. If you want to do a diorama on dogs you take a piece of poster board and just do it. Some people don't do most of the projects but you're going to learn something at couch time anyway. Everybody's my friend. The meetings are fun because children get to run them."

Sarena, with a rich after-school diet of piano, dance, and Girl Scouts and a close friend at a city magnet school, sometimes wonders what a regular setting would be like. "But I know one thing," she says. "You mostly sit at a desk all day, which would end up with me in the principal's office, 'cause I'd be so antsy. At a public school you only get to eat at one certain time, where I get to eat whenever I'm hungry. Homework is another thing about public school. In a school like ours you don't need homework because you learn everything while you're there."

Herbert Walberg, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, associates the theories that ground the Children's School with the belief of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau that a child is a noble savage whom society corrupts. Walberg feels open classrooms are "very humanistic and very humane. I myself am not at all unhappy about them." That teachers are less directive appeals to Walberg, since he thinks this atmosphere fosters self-reliance.

Yet Walberg cautions that too free-form an environment has its dangers. "Science, reading, math, and music ought to be taught in sequence," he says. "To do division you have to know how to subtract. To become a piano player you must learn the scales." In addition, he suggests that mastering some areas of knowledge, such as geography and Civil War history, are necessary for a student to become a good and proper citizen.

Based on a study of the existing literature he completed a decade ago, Walberg says that homework--properly graded, with feedback--has a salubrious effect on students. "The Greeks knew it, and so did the Hebrews," he says. "The more you study the more you learn." As to tests, Walberg says, "I'm a big advocate. First off, if you're talking about a public school there should be testing because taxpayers are entitled to know that their money is being well spent. But even with a private school, you have to know if children can perform. Whether it's getting into Harvard or taking a police department exam, they will need that for the future."

Dan Burke, a professor of education at Loyola University whose specialty is alternative schools, thinks Walberg is too rigid. "Learning is enhanced by personal meaning and the connectedness between what you're studying and the outside world," he says. "You don't need to know all the facts about the Civil War or the math tables. Why would you? Look, I'm sitting here three feet away from a calculator and three computers, but I remember very little about long division or fractions anymore. Get with the modern age. A ninth-grader can learn all he needs to know about math from figuring out his allowance and making change, from real-life experience. If kids can say, "I need to know this,' then they'll learn."

The reigning temple of open classrooms is the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts. Located in a 19th-century mansion set on an old estate 25 miles west of Boston, Sudbury Valley serves 200 students, from 4 to 18 years old. Students roam through the school and its grounds and are even freer in their learning than at the Children's School.

"The teachers like myself are called "staff members,"' explains Daniel Greenberg, a physicist trained at Columbia University who cofounded Sudbury Valley in 1968. "We are here basically to respond to requests for assistance. I may just chat with kids. There are classes, but I may not be called upon for days on end to conduct one. A lot of private study goes on, and the kids leave very well prepared for the postindustrial world, where initiative counts, not just taking orders."

A study of Sudbury Valley's alumni completed in 1991 found that most went on to some form of higher education, often at prestigious colleges. Forty-two percent either were self-employed or were a business owner or partner--in other words, an entrepreneur.

Michael Greenberg, Daniel's 34-year-old son who's a founder of Lunar Cabaret, the performance space on Lincoln Avenue, has been working since he left Sudbury Valley at 17. He concedes there are "tons" of gaps in his knowledge. "I never did mathematics past fractions," he says, "but I've never run into a situation where I've needed more math. I haven't studied cells or the nucleus or membranes, but if I'd had wanted to know about the stuff of science I would have." On the other hand, Greenberg feels deeply grounded in politics and history, both passions of his.

"I feel better educated than most people I meet," says Greenberg. "For better or worse, I'm an entrepreneur. For most of the time I've been a photographer, but I've never had a regular job. A large part of my independence comes from not wanting to be a cog in a machine. School prepared me well."

Greenberg's life is just the kind of future the Hazletts anticipate for Andy and Abby. "My kids will start the company that other people work for," contends Ken. "Andy is interested in hovercraft, for instance. Well, he may do something with that, or maybe not. But we're going to make it possible for him to take charge of his own life."

Three Children's School students--Alex, Abby, and Kristen Lidstrom--will be graduating next year and are already weighing high school options. More than the usual uncertainties surround their decisions.

The Children's School is registered with but not recognized by the Illinois Board of Education, meaning Lesch has let state authorities know of the facility's existence but hasn't invited inspectors in to peruse the curriculum and instruction. Lesch is within the law: all state law requires of private schools (and home schoolers) is that they offer the "branches of education taught to children of corresponding age and grade in public school"--and offer them in English. "If I went for certification I'd have to jump through too many hoops," explains Lesch. "I don't want to make compromises." The failure to secure certification sits well with the parents. "Accreditation is not a value," says Helen Hazlett. "I don't want some outside institution telling us what should be important." Still, high schools prefer students from certified institutions.

The Hazletts says it's up to Abby where she wants to attend high school. Abby thinks Evanston Township, the local public institution, would be "too huge, too big a step." The family has scoped out a smaller option--the Science and Arts Academy, a private school for the gifted and talented in Des Plaines. More regimented than the Children's School, the academy has "stages" instead of grade levels and puts its students, including a dozen or so high-schoolers, through regularly scheduled classes. If that means some getting used to for Abby, so will the admissions process, which requires that applicants take an IQ test. It will be the first real test Abby's ever taken, or would be; in preparation Abby and the Hazletts have asked Lesch to give the girl a trial run.

Next fall the Children's School enrollment will climb to 25 youngsters, its largest student body ever. Tuition is rising from $2,700 to $3,600 a year, and a new part-time teacher is being brought aboard. Helen Hazlett, volunteering as the business manager, has put the school on a balanced budget, much to Lesch's relief, since as late as last summer he had to sell an heirloom painting to keep the operation afloat. The board of directors--which, naturally, includes a student, Alec--recently voted to double Lesch's salary from the current $9,000 a year.

Lesch's belief in his venture remains unalloyed. "Come here and you're an individual," he says. "You're not a conformist. Your life is your own. I feel so, so strongly about that."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Kathy Richland.

Add a comment