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Luna (left) and Isabel, two first graders, await the start of school. See more photos in the gallery >>
PRAIRIE CROSSING CHARTER SCHOOL
1531 Jones Point Road, Grayslake
From his office windows, Myron Dagley surveys the grassy courtyard at the center of his environmentally friendly $9.4-million campus. “The challenges of city charter schools are far away from us,” admits Dagley, the director of Prairie Crossing Charter School in northern Lake County.
Students here would very likely go on to college if they attended school in one of the two nearby districts that the charter school serves. But the school—which is situated within the Prairie Crossing eco-subdivision in Grayslake—offers an educational alternative, starting with its size. At Woodlands School District 50, for example, four campuses accommodate more than 7,000 grade-school kids. Prairie Crossing School has 95 percent fewer students, and no class has more than 22 pupils. Last year, each of the 18 graduating eighth graders made a speech.
Beyond the size difference are a curriculum and a school culture infused with nature and the environment. All students spend some time journaling at their own “magic spot,” a place of their choice on the lawn or in the prairie. Recess is always outdoors unless the temperature or wind chill is below zero. Every classroom on the campus has its own garden space, and all the students work at the Prairie Crossing organic farm: Kindergartners gather and wash eggs in the henhouse; eighth graders plant, grow, harvest, and grind barley.
Environmentalism is also part of many lesson plans, but the key to the curriculum is “constructivist” learning, or classical discovery. In a math class, for instance, kids aren’t told about pi before they have discovered it themselves by wrapping assorted cylinders with lengths of string, measuring each string, and finding that there is a relationship between circumference and diameter. That’s a method of teaching—and learning—that is spread throughout the Prairie Crossing curriculum, and one that its practitioners think applicable to different educational models. “American children have become couch potatoes,” says Dagley, “and in the process of watching television and playing electronic games, we’ve lost something incredibly important about learning: stimulating curiosity and the miraculous process of discovery.”
STUDENTS PER TEACHER: 17
PERCENTAGE WHO MEET OR EXCEED STATE STANDARDS ON THE ILLINOIS STATE ACHIEVEMENT TEST (2007-08): 96.2
SNAPSHOT: An emphasis on nature, farming, and the environment, as well as a smaller student body, distinguishes Prairie Crossing from nearby schools.