Jacob Darley was a third-grader when his parents enrolled him in Forest Park Individual Education School in 1983.
Still a fairly new concept in Joliet at the time, Forest Park I.E. was only five years old. It was the city’s first magnet school.
“My parents were looking for something different,” Darley said.
Now in its 40th year, Forest Park I.E. employs the same education philosophy used then, leaving decisions to students and putting responsibility into their hands.
“I learned to be independent and that was kind of the goal,” Darley said. “I learned that my choices were up to me, and they had good results and bad results.”
Darley today is principal of Forest Park I.E., coming back because he believes in the methods that the school employs.
The four R’s at Forest Park are respect, responsibility, resourcefulness and responsiveness, a philosophy Darley said also is aimed at social responsibility.
For its 40th anniversary, the school organized a “40 Deeds and 40 Needs” campaign in which students conducted 40 public service projects.
Students manage their own report cards. Doing homework is their decision, although not doing it can lead to bad grades.
Teachers use hand signals in a classroom to order a misbehaving student out of the room so as not to interrupt instruction.
Even control of bad behavior often is left in the hands of the students.
“We have peer mediators,” fifth-grader Paul Slick said. “If they see a problem, they peer mediate with other kids.”
Arguments typically are settled with intervention from other students, Paul said.
Students removed from one classroom may have to find another classroom they can join.
While teaching his class last week, Ben Chan refused entry to one such student.
“I’ve seen that student before. I know that he’s not responded,” Chan said. “Everyone makes mistakes. We want them to respond to those mistakes.”
One of the goals of Forest Park I.E. is to help students become good citizens, Chan said.
“They have the responsibility to make the right choices,” he said. “Our philosophy here is to put the choice in the hands of the students.”
“Choices” is a word that comes up a lot when students, teachers and staff at Forest Park I.E. talk about their school.
“I like it a lot because of all the choices you can make,” fifth-grader Ana Gudeman said.
Ana likes the elective classes that are available at the end of the day. Students contribute to ideas for these classes. Sometimes they help teach them. Parents teach the electives, too.
Even forgetting a lunch becomes an opportunity to take responsibility and make the right choice.
School secretary Crystal Hernandez, also a former student, said that when kindergartners come to her in a panic because lunches are left at home, she invites them to think of a solution.
“That’s the joy that you get from this,” Hernandez said. “You see these kids think for themselves, and you see how it works.”