Transforming Education work room from early 1900s

Transforming Education

Philanthropy offers a powerful way to unite families and generations across time and circumstance. Giving is a way to share one’s values with others and to create a better future for those that come after you. The Laboratory Schools have grown not only through the diligent efforts of our current faculty, staff, students, and community, but with the critical support of philanthropists over the past 125 years. Donations and bequests of land, money, and time have planted seeds whose fruit we still treasure today.

Transforming Education, Mr. and Mrs. John Y. Scammon

Mr. and Mrs. John Y. Scammon

Much of the land on which the Laboratory Schools stand was once the home of the Scammon family. Jonathan Young Scammon was an early settler of Chicago, a philanthropist, an abolitionist active in the Underground Railroad, and a great contributor to the early successes of the city and the University of Chicago. After the Chicago Fire, the family moved permanently to their “large rambling old house” in Hyde Park on land bounded by 58th and 59th Streets, and Kimbark and Kenwood Avenues. The interior courtyard where Lower School students play outdoors was once the site of their residence and is officially named Scammon Court. Scammon’s widow, philanthropist Maria Sheldon Scammon, largely donated their land to the University—with the request that the Scammon Gardens be a location for school gardening, outdoor plays, and entertainment. Even the lilac bushes surrounding Lab, which have been enjoyed by generations of Lab families, were originally planted by the Scammons. So great were their contributions to education and the success of the Laboratory Schools that John Dewey served as a pallbearer at Mrs. Scammon’s 1901 funeral.

In 1899, Colonel Francis W. Parker was invited to start a private school funded by the noted Chicago philanthropist, Anita McCormick Blaine, daughter of Cyrus McCormick, the farm equipment tycoon. Mrs. Blaine pledged her considerable resources for a teacher-training college, called the Chicago Institute, and an elementary school where Parker’s progressive techniques could be applied and tested.

Transforming Education, Anita McCormick Blaine

Anita McCormick Blaine

The million dollars that Mrs. Blaine pledged for this project quickly attracted the attention of President William Rainey Harper at the University of Chicago. Harper’s vision—to which Mrs. Blaine quickly agreed—was that the Chicago Institute should become the University’s School of Education, with Parker serving as its director. The Institute would include a new building, a model elementary school, and considerable freedom for Parker to develop his ideas. In 1903, John Dewey’s Laboratory School, established in 1986, and Parker’s University Elementary School merged and moved into a new building, built on the Scammon’s land and named Emmons Blaine Hall, in honor of their generous benefactor’s late husband. 

Transforming Education, Blaine Hall 1904

Blaine Hall, 1904

Following this auspicious beginning, Lab families have ensured that the school continued to grow and develop students in intellectual and other ways. In 1929, Lab dedicated the new Sunny Gymnasium, funded in part by Bernard E. Sunny, a Lab student’s grandfather. The opening of the $400,000 building, with a swimming pool and several gymnasium floors, was a much-anticipated event for the community. Sunny Gym also underlined the importance of wellness at Lab in the 1920s. “The establishment of health habits, it is felt, is the primary objective of the program which is to be organized and put into practice in the new building,” according to a description of the new gym in the University Record. Nearly a hundred years later, Lab students still run, jump, play, and swim in the building named for a loving grandfather.

Lab students and alumni have also ensured their own legacies at Lab, making gifts to “pay it forward.” Michael Weinberg, ’41, AB’47, made his first gift to the University of Chicago at age 16, while still a student at Lab. Michael was born at the University’s then-named Chicago Lying-In Hospital and started school in Hyde Park at age four. At U-High, he served as president of his class and editor of the Midway. His mother, Leila Eichberg Weinberg—a 1919 Lab grad herself who went on to lead many University, Jewish, and civic organizations and support other causes in Chicago—had instilled in him from an early age the importance of philanthropy. Building on his mother’s example, and driven by his own passion, Michael became a lifelong philanthropist, splitting his annual gift among the general University fund and the schools he attended: the Laboratory Schools, the College, and Chicago Booth.

In 2020, Michael made his 80th consecutive annual gift to Lab and the University. He has also made a bequest to the University. Looking back at what Lab gave him, Michael says, “Supporting such a great institution, it’s almost like supporting family.”

The gifts and donations of the past continue to unite Lab students and families across generations. The Laboratory Schools have been transformed by the community’s spirit of philanthropy, and in turn the Schools have transformed the experience of education for students at Lab and around the world. One hundred and twenty five years of scholarship, curiosity, and creativity are represented in each building’s stones and every student’s journey.