On Religion, The Media and Life as a 20-something in Chicago

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6g0AEse4MAs&w=480&h=390]  ELGIN — Peter Mikulak has been with Fox River Country Day School for 50 years, first as a student, then as a teacher, according to a YouTube video. And, the video said, “Like George Bailey, he has become discouraged.” Looking out over the school’s 53-acre campus on Route 25 north of I-90, Mikulak wondered aloud whether it wouldn’t have been better if the school never had existed. The economy had taken its toll: Enrollment and donors had dropped off, and the school had payments to make. That’s when a “guardian angel” appeared and showed Mikulak what the forested campus would look like if the school never existed, paved over and industrial. He showed him what the students would look like, without the school’s nearly century-long commitment to character education. “This school makes a difference,” the video concluded. “You can make a difference, too. Send a gift. Hear a bell. Be an angel.” That video was part of the “It’s A Wonderful School” campaign launched by parents of students in late March. And it brought in enough money from “angel lenders” to pay staff and keep the school open through the end of the school year, according to Alan Neil, president of its board of trustees. But Fox River Country Day School, formerly the Chicago Junior School, announced last month it will close this coming school year after 98 years. “Everyone involved has been very understanding and very supportive. It’s just a function of the economy, like anything else,” Neil said. “We all love the school, but we have a responsibility.” That responsibility includes paying off a bond issuance to replace the school’s Hoxie House with a new elementary school building, the Neil Building, in the 2004-05 school year. At the time, there were concerns whether Hoxie House, part of the campus since the 1920s, still was viable, Neil said. The board of trustees raised tuition, and donors pledged more than $1 million so the school could afford the replacement, he said. But the lead donor later dropped out, leaving Neil’s family the building’s main benefactors, he said. And enrollment dropped from about 190 three years ago to 150 this past school year, he said. “The biggest problem is the number of full-time equivalent students,” Neil said. “We had many families go on financial aid. Many families have lost their jobs. That resulted in them going on financial aid and in many people un-enrolling their kids altogether.” The board president said it’s difficult to put numbers to the amount of money Fox River Country Day School needed to stay open — especially now without students or tuition dollars coming in to budget around. But he put a very rough estimate at $5 million. The school owes the bank more than $3 million, he said, and it owes more than that to other lenders — “some of them, just friends of the school.” “Certainly, our facility is not under water by any means. The value of the property is still greater than the loan,” he said. “The responsible thing to do is make sure we take care of the people who financed it instead of walking away from it.” That property has shrunk since the school moved to 100 acres in Elgin in 1923, according to David Siegenthaler, a researcher at the Elgin Historical Society. It still includes a building designed by John Van Bergen, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, and one of the state’s last remaining white cedar forests. Fox River Country Day School was founded in 1913 as Chicago Junior School, an active farm in St. Joseph, Mich., according to the school website. Its founders were Christian Scientists who wanted to provide a safe place and character education to homeless children roaming Chicago stockyards, Siegenthaler said. As recently as 1956, the school required its board of trustees to be Christian Scientists, he added, although its website now stresses it “does not attempt to influence the members of the community … regarding their religious beliefs.” Still, the school’s Character Building Qualities remain central to its mission of “educating the whole child,” which has earned it the distinction of an Illinois State School of Character. That was one of the reasons James Halik of Elgin said he chose to send his daughter Olivia, 13, to Fox River Country Day School two years ago. She had attended a Montessori school before that. Halik described the school as “a wonderful, accepting community that accepted not just my daughter but my partner and I and my ex-wife.” “That was a wonderful experience for Olivia,” he said. “I saw her find her voice as a young woman. I just can’t say enough about it.” The seventh-grader had about 15 students in her classes, he said. The teachers sent home detailed, 28-page progress reports each semester and called home just to describe her successes in the classroom. And the campus felt like a safe haven, for the animals that lived on the wooded property as well as for the students who attended the school, he added. Parents first learned that safe haven was in jeopardy when the school held an informational meeting in February or March, according to Steve Silva of Elgin. Silva’s oldest daughter Mariana just graduated from the school as a “lifer,” having attended since preschool. His daughter Elena just finished seventh grade at the school, he said. Many Fox River Country Day School or Chicago Junior School alumni, like Ana Cummins, didn’t realize there was trouble until the school announced it was closing. Cummins, who graduated from the school in 1992, said she found out after flying in from Dallas for this year’s graduation. That’s what gave her the idea to start a Facebook group to get in touch with other alumni and share information about the school closing. “I don’t know if we have any power to do anything, but we’re going to try,” Cummins said. Since she started “Save CJS/FRCDS” about two weeks ago, she has been sent “a huge chunk” of alumni contact information, and the group has attracted about 115 members. Those members have reached out to pro bono lawyers to see what they can do to help save the school. They’ve also alleged the school is in foreclosure (Neil confirmed it is not) and that trustees have benefited from its closure (under the school’s bylaws, they cannot or they risk losing nonprofit status, the board president said.). “All the bickering is just because there’s a lot of hurt and anger, and they don’t know where to direct that,” Cummins said. “For a lot of people, this is our home.” Cummins herself is a lifer. Her parents were dorm parents at the school and her dad a seventh-grade teacher there in the early 1980s, she said. “My first memories are at the school. The first things I remember of my lifetime are at the school. It’s a heart-warming thing,” she said. Neil said the school currently is negotiating with “a person with fairly deep pockets,” someone outside the U.S., to stay open. If that’s successful, he said, the school could reopen in a year. Selling the property is an option, he confirmed. That’s something the school is researching. It’s possible it could reopen at a different location, he said. “Without a doubt, it hurts. It’s painful,” Neil said. But it still is hopeful: “I think with a program as special as ours, there has to be a way for that to be perpetuated because it does so much for the community at large.” For the rest of the story, including links to additional resources and a photo gallery, visit The Courier-News.

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2011 at 11:34 pm

Fox River Country Day School Closing After 98 years (Sun-Times Media)

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