As the sky-high billboards along University Avenue claimed, Champaign's newest secular, private high school is gearing up for opening day, now less than a year away.
And even though Academy High officials haven't quite landed on a site or hired all of their teachers, the independent school is now accepting applications, promising an experiential-based education unlike anything offered in the area.
It can all be your child's for an annual cost of $15,800, more than what the University of Illinois charges for tuition.
Academy officials say they want to attract a diverse student population and, like St. Thomas More in Champaign, Schlarman Academy in Danville and the more than two dozen private schools throughout the area, the school will offer access to financial aid opportunities to lighten the load on families.
What keeps the 16 other existing private schools in business in a county where the median household income is $50,252, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates?
Families that choose that route for their children don't always do so because they don't believe in the public schools in their community. And the decision to go private isn't just for the elite or religious.
Public or private?
When Joe and Amy Chamley's daughters were old enough to enter grade school in Champaign, the couple enrolled them in Unit 4's Bottenfield Elementary. And once they graduate eighth grade, the Chamley girls will head straight to Central High School.
The only break the girls will take from Champaign public schools comes during their middle school years, which their parents decided would be best spent at Campus Middle School for Girls. Located inside First United Methodist Church near Lincoln Square mall, the middle school with fewer than 40 students was the only private option the Chamleys looked into.
"We never really considered private school for grade school or high school because it was the uniqueness of CMS that was the draw. It was a big decision and commitment to spend that much money, but it was totally worth it," Amy Chamley said of the school that charges $9,300 a year in tuition.
The girls-only theology was what hooked the Chamleys. That and the small class sizes, she said.
"It was important to us at that point in their development that they're in a place where they didn't have to worry about the other things that come around at that age with boys and other pressures," she said, adding that her oldest daughter, now an eighth-grader, has grown and matured in ways she might not have had the support to do in a bigger school.
The small class size setup is similar at the Montessori School of Champaign-Urbana, which services toddlers to sixth-graders, with K-6 tuition ranging from $5,100 to $8,700 a year, depending on the age of the child and how long they're in school each day.
At Montessori, education is completely student-driven, Head Administrator George Cook says. The primary school enrollment is just 126, split up into six multi-age classrooms, and the 2-year-old elementary school has a student population of 25 with a goal of growing to 40 over the next few years.
Neither's had any problem filling seats, Cook said.
"We may have thought a little too small when we started out; sometimes, I think we could've been a little more daring in terms of our elementary program," he said. But the small, two-teachers per classroom approach helps the school maintain its goal of developing the "whole child," Cook said.
"The primary objective is to help our students go forward and make the world a better place," he said. "We don't just focus on academics. For us, problem solving and social skills are just as important as reading and writing."
K-8 model a plus
That "whole child" approach isn't unique to Montessori. It's also one of the reasons Alison Wood opted to send all three of her boys to Champaign's Next Generation, a pre-K through eighth grade school where, she says, teachers help students understand the importance of citizenship and giving back to the community at a young age.
The Wood family never considered private education until they moved to a neighborhood outside the city limits, leaving them with a low-priority pick for Unit 4's Schools of Choice program.
"We know Unit 4 has some amazing teachers and schools and that our kids would have gotten an excellent education there, so it was a big decision for us to pay for private school," Wood said.
The decision has paid off, she said, rattling off the perks of an independent education: no standardized testing, encouragement of public speaking skills, field trips that connect the classroom to the rest of society and the benefits of a K-8 school model that's not offered in Unit 4.
When it comes to high school — one of her boys is already a junior — Wood said the family is straying away from the private school route.
"We want all three of our boys to go to Central High School," she said. "Our oldest son is a junior at Central and has thrived there. ... It is a big world and Central prepares you for that. (It) is a very welcoming environment and he quickly felt at home."
Similar to Next Generation, south Champaign's K-8 Countryside School, where tuition ranges from $13,170 to $13,550 a year, doesn't feed into any one high school.
Its main goal is to equip kids with a love of learning before they walk out the door, says Head of School Stephanie Harman, who said the main perk of running an independent school is the ability to develop a unique philosophy of education, value systems and teaching practices.
"It's about creating dispositions and mindsets that enable children to become their best selves and fully contributing global citizens," she said. "... We instill a joy in learning in our students that carries over into high school, college and beyond," she said.
Before Carolyn Peterson and her husband even got married, they knew public school wouldn't be an option for their kids.
Both attended Catholic school themselves, and both their parents and their grandparents had done the same, making it a sort of family tradition.
"We always knew we would send them to Catholic school, no matter where we lived," she said. "It was just a matter of choosing one."
The Petersons put both of their kids through Champaign's St. Matthew School. One is now a high school junior at St. Thomas More; the other's in college at Loyola, a Catholic university in Chicago. Best of all, "they're getting religion every day and getting to pray in school," their mother said, which was the draw of a faith-based education.
That's also what attracted Janet Murray and her husband to Holy Cross and eventually St. Thomas More, when it came time to pick out schools for their two daughters.
But for Murray, it marked the start of a new family tradition. She and her husband both went to public schools. Janet said she didn't grow up going to church and wasn't even Catholic when she was first married. But since converting to Catholicism, a faith-based education has become vital for the family.
"It means something different to me," she said. "I didn't grow up with much knowledge of the Bible or church, so it's important to me as an adult. I'm envious of the experience they've had.
"I notice it in my kids — they've made much better moral decisions than we did growing up. They have a different perspective. ... I feel like they're better at standing up for people who are marginalized or bullied; there's no tolerance for things like that."
And for Jason Schreder, who just took over as principal St. Thomas More, where tuition ranges from $7,118 to $11,942, that's the goal.
STM's mission, he said, "is to assist our parents and families in forming their students as a whole person and not just from an education standpoint, but intellectually, physically, mentally, spiritually. We can have that lived-faith experience throughout the school day to build on the foundation that parents and families have already started for their students."
'A choice we make'
Growing up in the Mattoon area, there was no Catholic high school option for Rush Record once he finished elementary school. Now, as a parent, the executive director of a Champaign County nonprofit spends at least $11,000 in tuition, with one child at St. Matthew and another at St. Thomas More.
He wouldn't call it a burden.
"It's just a choice we make. We choose to prioritize some things and give up some things to provide them with that," said the head of the local Court Appointed Special Advocate program. "Nobody forces us to do it. We made a commitment to them that that's what we're going to do for them and we find ways to make it work."
In the Champaign-Urbana area, it pays to be Catholic. Parishioners at St. Matthew Church pay $4,460 a year to send their child to that school, whereas non-Catholics are charged $7,530 annually. The same is true at St. Thomas More, which charges $10,703 for non-Catholics, $7,118 for members of local parishes and $11,942 for international students.
It's not that way everywhere. At Philo's St. Thomas Catholic School, it doesn't matter what religious (or nonreligious) background a family has.
All 150 students are charged the same flat rate: $2,965 a year, according to Principal Lisa Doughan. That's thanks to a "very generous" donation from a supporter of the school who wanted to give "equal opportunities to anyone who wanted to be part of St. Thomas," she said.
Independent schools also offer different financial aid opportunities to broaden the diversity of their student bodies. Montessori gives out scholarships to applicants every year, including 18 this fall, Cook said.
"We realize that (cost) is a barrier and in any private school that's the tension we carry, making sure the school is full" so it can pay all of the teachers and programs, he said. But because Montessori tries to keep its classes small, it usually doesn't have issues recruiting enough students each year.
The same's true at Countryside, which also offers financial aid to those who need it. While the school typically has enough applicants for every grade every year, that doesn't mean everyone who applies is accepted, Harmon said.
And while there is assistance available for those who need it, Next Generation School mom Amy Roessler acknowledges her family pays an awful lot for the things she loves about her daughter's private school — small classes, new facilities, thriving foreign languages and arts programs.
"It's expensive, no doubt about it," she said. "We sometimes think it seems absurd to be paying what is basically college tuition for a fourth-grader. But we've been happy and have never seriously considered switching to public school."
WHAT THEY COST (25 schools, 5 counties)
Base tuition rates for private schools across the area, not including additional fees, pre-K costs:
Academy High: $15,800
Calvary Baptist Christian Academy: $2,600 to $2,700
Campus Middle School for Girls: $9,300
Canaan Academy: $5,000 to $6,000
Countryside: $13,170 to $13,550
Holy Cross: $4,180 to $5,700
Judah Christian: $5,866 to $7,082
Kingswood School: $2,400
Montessori Habitat School: $5,700 to $7,850
Montessori School of CU: $5,100 to $8,700
Next Generation: Would not provide costs
St. Malachy: $3,500
St. Matthew: $4,460 to $7,530
St. John Lutheran: $3,850 to $5,200
St. Thomas More: $7,118 to $11,942
St. Thomas: $2,965
University Primary School: $5,400 to $7,200
Arthur Christian: $2,650 to $3,620
Heritage Preparatory Academy: $1,850
Monticello Christian Academy: $3,300
Danville Christian Academy: $2,115 to $2,205
Danville Lutheran: $3,150
First Baptist Christian: $3,660
Notre Dame De La Salette Boys Academy: $7,900
Rainbow of Hope: $3,400
Schlarman Academy: $2,900 to $9,400