Last week, alumni, parents, and "friends" of the U of C Laboratory Schools got a letter from David Magill, Director, saying that the University of Chicago's Board of Trustees had given the Early Childhood Center (among other Lab projects) the green light.
In my opinion, the Lab campus should not be split into two locations. Nevertheless, the cogs of institutional construction are in motion, and there is probably no turning back. So I'm introducing a challenge to the University and the Lab Schools: use the new Center to enliven Stony Island; resist the urge to plunk an isolated, car-oriented fortress on an already desolate block; create a public eatery and gathering space in the front of the school that will define the new culture of that school.
You read that correctly: I challenge the architects and administrators to incorporate a lovely cafe, right at the streetfront of a nursery through grade 2 school, and to keep it open for nighttime business.
A public cafe would:
1. encourage parents to mingle before and after drop-off and pick-up, thereby discouraging an exclusively "drive-by" use of the building for families (see the Booth Cafeteria at these hours for proof)
2. provide a great meeting place for parents and their children (of all grades) after school (again, see Booth)
3. provide an informal meeting space for teachers (see Booth)
4. give University employees, students, and community members another neighborhood amenity on the east end of campus (see Istria)
5. enliven that stretch of Stony Island, both during the day and after 5 PM.
Numbers 4 and 5 are for the benefit of the neighborhood and the University as a whole. For the Lab Schools, numbers 1 through 3 would go much further toward integrating the two separate Lab campuses and creating a school community than the shuttle buses Mr. Magill plans to operate between the two campuses. Just look at how the Lab Schools have planted their own culture in the Booth Cafeteria -- that's the market in action; that's how the schools' population chooses to socialize.
Naturally there would be security concerns about a public space inside a school with young children. But since they're designing the ECC from scratch, the architects should be able to arrange it so that strangers in the cafe won't have access to the main part of the school. The cafe could funnel into the school through one door, with a permanent security guard stationed there. There could also be alternate school entrances that bypass the cafe entirely.