On a Tuesday last November, the University of Chicago Lab Schools hosted two MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant winners on its bustling South Side campus: Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Lazarus Project, spoke to a high school English class about the concept of truth in literature, and sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot read to parents from her book Growing Each Other Up.
It was an outstanding, but not an unheard-of, day at Lab, where noteworthy speakers, including alumni and U. of C. faculty, often mingle with the 2,050 students (nursery school through 12th grade). Some of the world’s foremost scholars work across the street, so why wouldn’t, say, evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Neil Shubin stop by and spend an hour with a group of pupils? Students also have easy access to U. of C. facilities, including the Oriental Institute, the Smart Museum of Art, seven libraries, and the Henry Crown Field House. “The university adds to the life of the school, but we are also thinking about how the school can add to the life of the university,” says Charlie Abelmann, Lab’s new director, who began there in July. “Lab students can join campus events, and being youth, they add a perspective that others can’t.”
Abelmann spent 11 years at the World Bank, overseeing investments in educational programs in Indonesia, China, and Mongolia, before spending the last seven years at an independent school in Maryland. Given his time at the World Bank, he was especially attracted to the fact that a number of “real-world issues” are playing out on campus and in the city of Chicago. “I’m a progressive educator in terms of my beliefs about children—learning by doing, educating the whole child, focusing on social [responsibility],” he says. “Lab is the mother ship of progressive education.”
That means schooling isn’t limited to the classroom. Lab’s civic engagement program puts students in a five-week paid internship focused on enriching the surrounding South Side neighborhoods. And the Summer Link program places students in the university’s laboratories, business and law schools, and press.
Another focus of progressive schooling? Diversity. Minorities make up 50 percent of Lab’s population, and despite the school’s hefty price tag, there’s significant socioeconomic diversity, too. That’s in large part because of an employee benefit at U. of C. that covers 50 to 85 percent of the school’s $33,558 tuition for children of faculty or staff—everyone from tenured professors to janitors. “One of my closest friend’s mom was a security guard at the university, and that’s the only way she could afford to go to Lab,” says an alumna. “That socioeconomic diversity doesn’t really exist in a lot of other private schools.” In fact, 60 percent of Lab students come from families associated with the university, and another 10 percent receive financial aid unrelated to the university’s tuition benefits.
For plenty of Lab grads, that commitment to progressive work is a theme throughout their lives. Alumni include Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens, former secretary of education Arne Duncan, Ebony Media CEO Linda Johnson Rice, and former Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing. Also, Malia and Sasha Obama, who went to Lab through fourth and first grades, respectively, until Dad got some new out-of-town job in 2008.