A group of parents wants to launch a private high school focused on experiential learning at the University of Illinois’ tech hub in Champaign, but it still has some hurdles to clear.
The group formed about six months ago and now includes more than 70 families in the Urbana-Champaign area, said Lisa Libman, one of the parents making the push.
Those families are funding the effort, have hired a consultant and say the school’s first class will start in fall 2017, though no deal has been signed with U. of I. The school would be run independently of the university.
The school, called Academy High, would emphasize internships and experiences much more than a traditional high school, said Rich O’Dell, CEO of St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Heads Up Educational Consulting, the firm the parents hired to help them get Academy High going.
“How much time kids spend on tests is different, how much time they work collaboratively is different,” O’Dell said. “How much time they spend finding a passion is different.”
Climbing walls, kitchens, labs and open spaces where students collaborate on projects — these are a few things pictured by O’Dell and the group. Once the kids hit 11th and 12th grade, they’ll spend semesters in internships, an experience that usually doesn’t come until college.
That’s why the University of Illinois Research Park is such a good spot for Academy High, O’Dell said — the proximity to companies.
Soon, the group plans to form a board and make the school’s first hire. The first round of student applications will be due in October.
Visions for a complete Academy High include 400 to 600 students, grades nine through 12, housed in its own building in the Research Park, O’Dell said. But it’ll start in a temporary location, with about 50 kids in the first class, and only accept freshmen and sophomores.
“That would take five or six years to get to that (400-student) level,” he said.
Research Park officials are very interested in the idea of having a school in the park, said director Laura Frerichs. It’s home to about 100 startups and corporations that would have a chance to impact kids before they reach college.
“If we had high school students in our mix, we would be able to share more of what was happening in the tech community with them,” she said.
There’s already a private kindergarten and a daycare in the Park.
Academy High still needs to lease space in an existing building, which could happen pretty quickly, Frerichs said.
The Research Park typically remains about 90 percent full, and space fills fast. It’s first-come, first-serve. There are two new structures set to be built, but the Research Park generally doesn’t start construction until they have tenants secured.
Building its own structure would be a more complicated project for the school. Companies that want their own buildings in the Research Park must fund the construction, Frerichs said, or find a partner willing to do so.
“It’s possible to do all of those things, but there are steps and procedures to get through,” Frerichs said. “A lot has to depend on their ability to financially proceed with the lease or financially subsidize a new building.”
Libman, one of the mothers involved, said they have other sites in mind if the U. of I. site doesn’t work out, but would not say where.
She also would not disclose how much has been spent on the school. The board will set tuition once it is formed, and that will help define Academy High’s budget.
O’Dell said the price of starting a high school varies, depending on the size of the school and involvement of the people behind it.
“This is a very good large committed group of people to this cause and they’re putting in a tremendous number of hours, which helps keep the cost down,” he said.
It also needs to become accredited through the Chicago-based Independent Schools Association of the Central States, said the association’s president, Claudia Daggett.
Colleges and universities almost always look for accreditation when considering candidates for enrollment.
Independent, nonprofit schools must be up and running for three years before they can become accredited, Daggett said. They also must meet a set of guidelines and improvement measures.
Academy High has not yet contacted the organization about accreditation, she said. The organization covers 13 states and has 237 member schools. It accredits two or three schools per year.
“It’s very doable,” Daggett said. “But it involves some careful attention and thoughtfulness.”