KANKAKEE TWP. — Renaissance Academy is celebrating a milestone this month, and the Montessori charter school will be hosting a 20th anniversary party on Friday to show off all it's accomplished in that time.
The school – located on U.S. 20 just east of I-94 in unincorporated Kankakee Township – has made a lot of progress since 1999, when it started out with a mere 30 students, a number that more than doubled within the first year, according to Kieran McHugh, head of school
Renaissance came into its own when the school departed from private to a Montessori charter in 2007, and is now home to about 275 students from pre-K through eighth grade, she said. “When we became a charter, the wait lists were instantly filled.”
Keeping a manageable amount of students has been important to the faculty since the school’s inception.
“We have tried to grow slowly,” McHugh said. “We really want to keep that small-school feeling. We want the teachers to be able to know every kid and the kids to know each other. We feel that approaching 300 [students] is the right size for that.”
Classes at Renaissance operate differently than at typical schools. Each student is given a work plan with a list of things they need to do for each day of the week. As they work through the plans individually, they learn time management skills and gain the ability to self-identify their individual strengths and weaknesses.
“The [Montessori style] eliminates the idea that everyone is supposed to be at the same place at the same time," McHugh said. "We really believe in following each child to his or her own greatest progression. We’re a very academically focused Montessori school. It’s about the social, emotional and academic components of development coming together.”
Renaissance prides itself on being experiential-based in its approach to teaching, according to McHugh. Before the start of the school year, the staff determines nearby activities they wish their students could experience – and plan field trips accordingly.
They make a point of taking the students to one of the major museums in Chicago every year, along with opportunities to camp at the dunes, take dance lessons and have formal meals.
Although the school only takes students up to eighth grade, its high academic standards provide what McHugh characterizes as "excellent preparatory education for college and beyond."
“I think Montessori gives way more preparation for today’s world," she said. "It’s not about doing what everyone else is doing at the same time, according to the directions of your boss. It’s about being an independent worker and being self-directing."
Most graduates of Renaissance Academy go on to attend La Lumiere School, but many also attend Marquette Catholic, Michigan City and New Prairie high schools.
“We’ve heard back from high schools that our students are the strongest coming in," McHugh said. "I think it’s because they are independent and self-directed. They know how to talk to grown-ups, so they ask questions and find out what is expected of them and better follow the work. They tend to be very high achieving."
She hopes to be able to continue that standard of excellence while "continuing to grow and adapt to the needs of the modern world."
Looking back at what the school has become over the last 20 years, McHugh said, “What’s been satisfying is the feeling that we’ve grown a community. It feels like friendships have formed and will continue. Our students tend to stay in touch even after they go off to different high schools, and that’s really neat.”
The 20th anniversary event – 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11, at the Grand Beach Village Hall in New Buffalo, Michigan – will feature food from the Taste of Michiana, an auction and cash bar. Tickets are available on the school’s website – rschool.net – or by calling 219-878-8711.