Former Illinois education superintendent Michael Bakalis says after experimenting with charter schools for years, he now is focusing on developing private schools with a liberal arts focus to better prepare students for college.
The first such college prep high school is set to open next fall in Batavia.
A marketing campaign using radio advertisements and direct mail to recruit students for the Harbridge College Prep Academy is underway in targeted communities in Kane and DuPage counties.
It's the first private school venture for American Quality Schools, a nonprofit founded by Bakalis, which operates three charter school campuses in Chicago and five schools in Indiana.
The Batavia school will be located in the historic Campana factory at Route 31 and Fabyan Parkway. It will cater to communities from Elgin south to Aurora, plus western Naperville.
"It's a done deal only to the extent that we have the students," Bakalis said. "We have a commitment for the building. This is very different from any school we have ever had."
Unlike charter schools that receive state funding, the private school will be funded entirely through tuition, Bakalis said.
Per pupil spending in the group's charter schools in Chicago and Indiana ranges from $5,000 to $10,000. Students at the Batavia school will start out paying $8,000 the first year for tuition, which will be reduced $1,000 in succeeding years. Officials hope to start out with 100 freshmen students and eventually grow into a four-year school with a maximum of 325 students.
Enrollment is not restricted, but officials are targeting students with high academic achievement and interest in attending college, Bakalis said.
Teacher/administrator recruitment will begin early next year at job fairs, through universities and advertising. The school's faculty will comprise a mix of mostly experienced full-time teachers and working professionals serving as adjunct instructors.
"We want to be able to utilize professionals in the community who have a particular kind of expertise ... because as a private school we are not constrained by certification," Bakalis said. "We've got inquiries already of people who want to teach. People are sending us resumes. I don't think it's going to be a problem finding teachers."
Salaries for full-time teachers will range between $45,000 and $50,000 yearly, not as high as some suburban districts, Bakalis said.
"We don't have any kind of a salary scale. Our schoolteachers are all evaluated on performance, and the adjuncts will be paid by course," Bakalis said.
The school's instructional model will incorporate problem-based curriculum, experiential learning, character education, service learning, honors and Advanced Placement programs, and some assessments to measure progress in reading, language arts and mathematics.
Bakalis said he believes in the Paideia education philosophy which emphasizes didactic instruction, intellectual coaching, and Socratic seminar method of teaching by asking questions, inviting collaboration and facilitating dialogue. It is designed to improve students' critical thinking and communication skills.
The curriculum would mirror that of a liberal arts college and in no way competes with Aurora-based Illinois Math and Science Academy, which is a selective state school, Bakalis said.
The main idea behind Harbridge is to break away from the traditional school model that places too much emphasis on standardized tests.
"They didn't have them then," Bakalis said, referring to when he served as state education superintendent in the early 1970s. "It was not a period of high stakes testing."
Standardized testing also was not prevalent in the 1980s when Bakalis served as deputy undersecretary of education in the U.S. Department of Education.
"That's only begun since about the year 2000 with No Child Left Behind," he said.
Bakalis said Finland and Poland have some of the highest achieving schools in Europe and they don't do any standardized testing.
"I'm not against testing," Bakalis said. "But I am against testing to penalize people, to close down schools and fire teachers. It goes against everything we know about how students learn."
Bakalis said the charter school model has produced positive results, despite students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as low-income families, immigrant and refugee communities, and communities with high crime rates.
"We have a high school in Gary, Indiana, in a very poor community -- 100 percent African-American (students). It got a B rating from that state," he said.
About 85 percent of those students have gone on to some kind of postsecondary learning, he added.
Yet, Bakalis says, growing state requirements on charter schools are making them function more like public schools.
"It has become a very burdensome, bureaucratic process," Bakalis said. "They were supposed to be innovative schools that are free from bureaucracy, but that hasn't happened. We will gradually move more and more to the private school area, not only in Illinois but a few other states as well. This is the first venture in this kind of a school where we are targeting a particular audience. We have the freedom to do the kinds of things that I think should be done in all schools."