Beacon Academy has its eyes on the vacant upstairs of the former Borders and Noble store along Church Street for its Montessori high school. RoundTable photo

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Beacon Academy a Montessori High School (Beacon), a not-for-profit corporation, is asking the City of Evanston to provide it financial backing to open a private high school in downtown Evanston, either at 715 Church St. or 622 Davis St.

The financial assistance sought is a guarantee of a $650,000 construction loan to build out space at 715 Church St. or, alternatively, to provide a letter of credit that Beacon could draw upon to make lease payments if necessary on space at 622 Davis St.

City staff brought Beacon’s proposal before the City’s Economic Development Committee on Aug. 28. Paul Zalmezak, the City’s senior economic development coordinator, told the RoundTable the purpose in bringing this to the EDC “was to get a sense if the EDC was willing to consider guaranteeing a loan for this use.”

Two aldermen on the committee questioned whether the City should take on financial risk to launch a private school.

The Proposed School

Beacon plans to open its doors in September 2014 to its first ninth- and tenth-grade classes. The school would subsequently expand to include eleventh and twelfth grades and ultimately serve 250-300 students, many of whom would be drawn “from across the North Shore and the north side of Chicago,” says Beacon’s proposal. “As the first Montessori high school in the Chicago area, Beacon has the potential to draw students from a considerable range of very successful Montessori elementary and middle school programs across the Chicago area.”

The proposal says Board members and heads of school from five independent and one public Montessori school are developing Beacon Academy. The independent Montessori schools are located in Evanston, Forest Bluff, Lake Forest, Rogers Park and Near North Chicago.

Beacon’s curriculum would be built around the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program, an “interdisciplinary curriculum that emphasizes self-directed learning, strong writing skills, and an international mindset.” The proposal says, “Unlike other high schools, Beacon will rely on the expertise and facilities of Evanston-based educational, artistic, cultural, civic, business and athletic organizations. Through partnerships with these organizations, Beacon Academy will provide opportunities for students to dig deep into their passions, spread themselves broadly across the community and integrate all aspects of learning with life.”

Beacon’s proposal says Piven Theatre, the Musical Offering, the Evanston Public Library, YWCA and Evanston Arts Center “are eager to partner with us.”  Beacon has a memorandum of understanding with Northwestern Center for Talent Development and plans to work with the Office of STEM Partnerships at Northwestern University. They hope to connect with “a range of businesses, not-for-profits, and other arts and athletic organizations.”

Beacon’s proposal adds that they plan “to reach out to low-income communities,” and that they have built scholarships into their budget.

The proposal says both downtown locations “provide a ready-made and optimal learning environment for hands-on experience and field studies.”

Staffs’ Assessment

City staff say in a memorandum they presented to members of the EDC that they confirmed with Beacon’s bank, MB Financial, that the bank “would not be able to provide financing [to Beacon] without the financial backing of a credit worthy guarantor (e.g. City of Evanston).” While telling the City that the risk of lending to Beacon “is not as risky as a traditional startup,” the bank is not willing or able to take on that risk.

The staff memo lists nine “public benefits” of establishing a new school in Evanston. They include: the new school will create about 30 to 40 jobs (although it is unclear how many will be for Evanston residents); it will be a draw for new residents who are seeking alternatives to existing public and private school options; the students and staff of the school will patronize local restaurants and retailers; Beacon will commit to recruiting a diverse range of Evanstonians; and it may use the long vacant second floor of 715 Church St.

Mr. Zalmezak  told the RoundTable, “This is a new concept. We have to understand our risks.” He said EDC directed staff on Aug. 28, “Go back and do a risk assessment. Find out if there are alternative ways to do this. Is there a risk-free way to do this?

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to see if this is viable from an economic development perspective,” Mr. Zalmezak added. “The issue really is do we use public funds of any kind to establish a private school?”

In the meantime, he said, Beacon is continuing its fundraising efforts.  Beacon’s proposal says the five independent Montessori schools that would feed into Beacon Academy have “robust financial positions,” with combined endowments of $15 million.

The issue may be brought back to the EDC as early as its next meeting on Sept. 25.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...