Those who have passed through the doors of Iroquois Community School in Des Plaines returned Friday to celebrate a milestone for the year-round school.
Marking its 20th anniversary this summer, Iroquois is the oldest year-round public school in the Chicago area.
And though its beginnings may have been controversial, advocates believe the K-8 school has proved effective.
"Having experienced both sides -- the traditional calendar when I taught in Chicago and the year-round, balanced calendar, I really am a strong proponent of that, and the K-8 environment," said Manny Bustos, an Iroquois social studies and science teacher for 19 years, and a member of the original community group that pushed for the school's creation. "This format here is a very strong way for education to be."
The 20th anniversary celebration Friday night had music, food and tours for the alumni, parents and new families who attended.
Iroquois beats out Ridge Family Center for Learning in Elk Grove Village and Landmark Elementary School in McHenry as the oldest year-round school in the area. The latter two schools were established in 2001.
The 500 or so students who attend Iroquois every year don't attend classes any more or less than their counterparts at the other 11 schools in Des Plaines Elementary District 62. But the required 174 days of instruction are spread throughout the entire calendar year -- a methodology that officials attribute to higher student retention rates and achievement.
Students start the school year in mid-July, then take a three-week break in the fall, two-week winter break, three-week spring break and six-week summer break.
During the breaks, many students voluntarily attend two-week "intersessions" on reading and math, and specialized topics like coding and robotics. Teachers recommend the extra help for students based on testing, and families pay tuition to participate.
"We love this calendar," said Michael Amadei, Iroquois' principal of nine years. "We do well because kids are at school more."
The school is highly sought after by District 62 families. There were 75 applicants for only 26 kindergarten spots last year, forcing district officials to resort to a lottery system. Parents apply every February, and often don't find out until June or July, just before Iroquois' school year begins.
The school is on Des Plaines' south side, at 1836 Touhy Ave., but that doesn't stop applications coming in from all over Des Plaines.
"We're full. People want to be here," Amadei said. "Parents like their kids being in one place for nine years."
Before it became a K-8, year-round school, Iroquois was one of Des Plaines' three junior high schools.
Then-superintendent Robert Willis proposed the year-round model in part to address overcrowding at the elementary schools.
When Iroquois converted in July 1997, some junior high students stayed. Others had to leave to make room for elementary students.
It was not without controversy, as opponents argued the school would cut into summer family time and divert resources from other schools.
When the school started it had multiage instruction -- with two grades being grouped into one class. That was dropped 10 years ago so teachers could better focus on implementing common core standards, officials said.
Bustos, one of Iroquois' longest-serving staff members, lives a mile away from the school. Both of his children graduated from Iroquois.
"For me, the school is in my heart. It's in my community," he said. "I feel like I'm making a difference in my community."