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Elgin Academy ready to mark 175 years

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Updated: March 24, 2014 6:29AM

Not much of anything made by man in the Fox Valley can say it is 175 years old.

The first settlers didn’t even arrive in Elgin and the Dundees until 1835. But as Elgin Academy celebrates its 175th birthday this weekend, academy leaders claim it also is the oldest non-church-affilliated, coeducational college-prep school in the United States west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Academy staffers, students and alums celebrated the birthday by sending students into the community doing a variety of service projects on Friday in conjunction with the United Way of Elgin. Then they planned to hold several historically oriented programs on Saturday, attended by 300 people.

“It’s unusual just to be around that long,” said Seth Hanford, who has been head of school since 2012. “But we have been coeducational all that time, too. Our first graduate was a woman. And we have been nondenominational. Most prep schools have some time in their past when they had a single gender or had a connection with some church.”

Elgin founder James Gifford and other Elgin pioneers persuaded the state to charter an Elgin Academy to teach their children four years after the city was settled. But according to Courier-News history columnist E.C. “Mike” Alft, lack of funds kept the academy from actually teaching anybody for another 17 years. So that might more accurately make the academy a mere 158 years old.

As public schools popped up to teach younger students, the academy plans were put on hold. But in 1848 members of the Free Will Baptist Church decided to start a local college. They bought land for it just east of the downtown, on a hilltop that would long remain the highest spot in the city. Then the college people, too, ran out of money to turn their dream into reality.

So, Alft writes in “Elgin: An American History,” Mayor Joseph Tefft reactivated the academy board of trustees and raised enough money to buy the hilltop land. In 1856, two years after the city government had been organized, they built the cupola-topped Greek Revival building that would go down in history as ”Old Main” on Park Street east of Dundee Avenue,. And Elgin Academy was open for business.

Today Old Main, visible from miles around at night with its bath of white spotlights, remains perhaps Elgin’s most famous building, and in fact part of the city’s official emblem.

The academy still uses part of Old Main. A room in the first floor known as the Seigle Family Classroom was occupied Thursday morning by a dozen high-schoolers studying for a World History test about the Enlightenment. But most of this historic structure now, fittingly, holds the Elgin Area Historical Society museum.

Meanwhile, the academy itself has grown to eight buildings, ranging from the columned Classical Greek-looking Sears Gallery, built in 1924, to the four-story ultramodern Rider Center with classrooms and a community theater space, built in 2008.

But it still occupies that same ground at the top of Elgin.

A wide reach

Those 1839 founders wanted a school that could provide a high school education that was otherwise unavailable to Elgin youth. But after Elgin High School opened, it began to draw its students not only from the city but from surrounding areas that had no high school.

Today, it offers classes for every age level from preschool through 12th grade. Its enrollment of 390 allows for about 30 students at each grade level.

Until the 1980s, many students boarded in the school’s dorms either seven days a week or Monday through Friday.

But Hanford said most now come from Elgin itself, especially from the fast-growing and affluent far west side; Barrington; St. Charles; and increasingly from Hoffman Estates and Bartlett.

The academy even attracts a number of students from foreign countries — 12 to 15 this year — who stay with local families.

According to the cliche, prep school kids are all rich and white. But that’s not so true at Elgin Academy, Hanford says. In fact, about one-fourth of the students this year belong to ethnic or racial minorities.

“And it’s important to think of diversity in different ways,” Hanford said. “It’s not just different skin color. It’s having different religions, different economic levels. It’s even having some people from different countries.”

Opening up

“A lot of people think we’re just that rich school on the hill. But we are a very diverse community,” Hanford said. “Intentionally so. We want to make sure this education is available on a very broad basis. We give $1.5 million in financial aid in a given school year, almost all of it based on financial need, and one third of that is given to people within Elgin.”

Tuition varies by grade level but runs about $20,000 a year, before financial aid.

“Supporting a school like this is very expensive because our classes are small,” Hanford said.

In contrast to public schools in the Fox Valley, where each teacher must watch over 25 to 35 students at a time, the academy has a teacher-student ratio of just 7-1. Few classes have more than 12 or 15 students, and Hanford said courses like Second-Year Calculus and European History are offered even if they draw only two or three students, because the administration considers them to be important.

“We firmly believe small classes are best because of the teacher’s ability to know the students and to give them instant feedback.”

The academy also believes in foreign languages — French and Spanish from the earliest ages, Latin beginning with seventh grade. Hanford said the school also emphasizes exposure to art, music and performing arts, and the need to live a life of service, as the students were doing Friday in celebration of the anniversary.

One thing students won’t get at Elgin Academy is hands-on training in blue-collar job skills.

“We are unabashedly a college preparatory school,” Hanford said. “There is certainly an important place for trade schools. But one advantage of being a private school is that you don’t need to be all things to all people. Historically, 100 percent of our graduates have been able to gain admission to selective four-year colleges.”

But can a teen from a graduating class of 32 feel at home at a university with 100 times as many students as the academy?

Absolutely, Hanford insists.

“At this point in history, learning the skills of living is more important than learning content. Someone said that today’s average 18-year-old will have something like 12 different careers by the time he’s 35. What will allow him to move from one job to another is the ability to learn new things, the ability to work with other people of different ages and backgrounds, the ability to ask questions. These are the things someone gains at Elgin Academy.”

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