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updated: 2/16/2014 9:47 PM

Elgin Academy marks 175th year as rare independent school

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  • Elgin Academy in Elgin marks the 175th anniversary of its charter this month with a day of service Friday and a day of festivities Saturday. It is the oldest coeducational college preparatory institution in the Northwest suburbs.

       Elgin Academy in Elgin marks the 175th anniversary of its charter this month with a day of service Friday and a day of festivities Saturday. It is the oldest coeducational college preparatory institution in the Northwest suburbs.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Elgin Academy junior Zainab Abbasi edits a project in her videography class. The school this month marks the 175th anniversary of its charter.

       Elgin Academy junior Zainab Abbasi edits a project in her videography class. The school this month marks the 175th anniversary of its charter.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Elgin Academy second-grade teacher Ellen DeBruin arranges a class project showcasing Elgin-style architecture. The school is celebrating the 175th anniversary of its charter this month.

       Elgin Academy second-grade teacher Ellen DeBruin arranges a class project showcasing Elgin-style architecture. The school is celebrating the 175th anniversary of its charter this month.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Sears Hall on the Elgin Academy campus, which marks its 175th anniversary this month.

       Sears Hall on the Elgin Academy campus, which marks its 175th anniversary this month.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Elgin Academy second-grade teacher Ellen DeBruin works with student Frankie Whitlock. The school is celebrating the 175th anniversary of its charter this month.

       Elgin Academy second-grade teacher Ellen DeBruin works with student Frankie Whitlock. The school is celebrating the 175th anniversary of its charter this month.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • The original Elgin Academy school building. The private, nondenominational school marks the 175th year of its charter this month.

      The original Elgin Academy school building. The private, nondenominational school marks the 175th year of its charter this month.
    Courtesy of Elgin Academy

 
 

Elgin Academy has earned many distinctions throughout its long history.

But leaders are most proud of it being one of the oldest independent private schools in the country, free from affiliation to any ideological or religious group, and being the oldest coeducational college preparatory institution in the Northwest suburbs.

The school -- chartered in 1839, four years after Elgin's founding -- marks 175 years of its charter this month with a day of service in partnership with United Way on Friday, followed by a day of revelry Saturday.

"It's quite a milestone for us," said Seth Hanford, head of school. "We've been coeducational and nondenominational the whole time. It's a rare thing. We're very proud that the school has educated men and women without regard to their religion in its entire history. Our focus is really on the education of the whole student. We emphasize a real strong liberal arts background."

Established by the same leaders who founded the city of Elgin, the school has operated since 1856 out of its 18-acre campus at 350 Park St. Situated in the city's historic district the entire time, the landmark 1856 school building, known as Old Main, today houses the Elgin Area Historical Society Museum and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

A boarding school until the 1980s, Elgin Academy today caters to students from prekindergarten through 12th grade and has expanded to seven buildings on campus.

The school draws students from roughly 40 communities, including Algonquin, Barrington, Batavia, Cary, Crystal Lake, Elgin, Gilberts, Hoffman Estates, Schaumburg, St. Charles, and Streamwood. Nearly 27 percent of the student population is ethnic minorities, which includes international students representing nearly a dozen countries, creating a culturally and economically diverse student body of about 400 students, said Shannon Howell, assistant head of school for institutional advancement.

"We essentially have all faiths and all backgrounds at Elgin Academy," Howell said. "It's one of the more ethnically diverse schools anywhere."

World languages -- French, Spanish and Latin (in seventh grade) -- are taught starting from preschool through 12th grade.

Word-of-mouth has been key to drawing students from foreign countries, including China, Germany, Korea, Switzerland, and Vietnam. The school's 15 international students currently are placed with host families in the Elgin area.

Elgin Academy's appeal is that it offers a different approach to learning, placing importance not only on core academic subjects, but also on creative arts and athleticism, Howell said.

"What makes us unique is the ability to have great faculty," Howell added.

The average teacher tenure is 20 years, and the teacher-student ratio is seven teachers to every student, About 73 percent of all faculty members and 92 percent of high school teachers have a master's degree or doctorate in their field, officials said.

"Our mission and our focus for our curriculum is the whole child. Fine arts, athletics are just as important in the curriculum as math and science," Howell said.

The school's largest graduating class was 41 students last year. Historically, 100 percent of Elgin Academy graduates have been accepted at selective four-year colleges and universities, officials said.

Looking ahead, the academy hopes to expand its summer school program offerings. Officials have submitted a proposal to the city of Elgin to use a portion of a 53-acre, wooded campus. The site, off Route 25 and north of I-90 in Elgin, used to house the Fox River Country Day School.

"They have a great campus over there. We can do a lot of environmental classes," Howell said, adding that a portion of that campus also could be used for student living and dormitories over the summer.

But officials don't anticipate future enrollment growth will be significant.

"The last 20 years has been a tremendous amount of growth in this area," Howell said. "We are at the right size of where we want to be."

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