NORTH PARK — The Forest Playschool, a nature-focused outdoor preschool program, has been booted from the Walking Stick Woods at North Park Village.
The Forest Playschool held class almost entirely outside in the Walking Stick Woods, a 12-acre parcel of land in the center on the city’s Northwest Side. But after a group of neighbors complained that the kids were causing too much chaos near the nature preserve, the Park District terminated the school’s permit.
In a letter this week, Teresa Weed, the school’s director, told parents the Chicago Park District terminated the permit with 90 days notice. The school will officially on Aug. 23, and all deposits for the 2019-2020 school year will be refunded, she wrote.
Weed said she doesn’t immediately plan to fight the Park District’s decision.
“It is literally impossible for a preschool without a building to become licensed by [Illinois Department of Children and Family Services] as the law stands today,” she said.
In order to obtain a license, the school would have to find a building to operate out of — a move Weed called a “huge commitment” — or to get an exemption from DCFS.
Weed said the school could get an exemption if a government organization — like the Park District or the Forest Preserve — were overseeing it. Deborah Lopez, a spokesperson for Illinois DCFS, confirmed the school could receive a waiver if the Park District would submit documentation stating they are responsible for the program.
But “it is not possible to broker such an agreement in two months,” Weed said.
Illinois law requires a preschool to have a dedicated physical structure, Lopez said.
“Not only do you need a physical building but the fact that the program has on public park property means the public has access to it, so that’s another issue,” she said.
When the Forest Playschool landed its first permit in 2014, no one had any idea how successful the program would be, Weed said. At the time, “it did not seem necessary to announce a tiny pilot project to try a new education model to the Chicago Park District …or to the neighborhood.”
Since then, the school’s popularity has grown. In the last year alone, educators from five countries have visited the outdoor preschool to learn about its model.
“Research shows that children thrive in forest kindergartens,” Weed said.
But when some neighbors began to complain about the program in December 2018, Weed thinks the program got on Park District leaders’ radar for all the wrong reasons.
In a June 10 letter, Joseph E. Bornstein, a Park District attorney, informed Weed they were terminating the agreement they had with Forest Playschool.
“Continuation of this agreement would not be in the best interest of the park district,” he wrote. The letter did not detail what specifically prompted the termination of the contract.
Fraternal Forest, another program for kids between six and 11 years old that meets on the weekends, was also kicked out of North Park Village, confirmed Sol Hinami-Mayorga said, the program’s founder.
“The neighbor who was complaining about the presence of our children in the forest won,” Hinami-Mayorga wrote to parents this week.
Hinami-Mayorga’s program had been around for more than two years and was created after she heard children, including her own, aged out of the Forest Playschool but still want to learn about nature at North Park Village.
The Park District notified her that the permit would not be renewed in May. In the letter, Amaris Alanis Ribeiro, director of the North Park Village Nature Center, said staffing in part led to the decision.
“It is our goal to preserve the ecological balance while maintaining the educational purpose of Walking Stick Woods. To balance various uses, nature play in Walking Stick Woods will be limited to a number of nodes,” she wrote. “These small nodes will allow for significant restoration. Moreover, we have limited staffing on weekends and supporting ongoing permitted programming in Walking Stick Woods exceeds our capacity.”
Since June 6, Fraternal Forest has continued its programing on canoeing, beach and camping field trips staged elsewhere, she said.
Park District representatives were not not immediately available for comment.
After initially launching complaints in December, the same group of neighbors interrupted park staff at a March 5 meeting to let them know that that the Walking Stick Woods area had “become unattractive” and that there is “unstructured play” going on because of the preschool.
At that meeting, Janita Tucker, who says she lives on North Central Park Avenue across from the Walking Stick Woods, read a statement of her grievances regarding the nature program while flanked by two people who prevented park staff from approaching her.
Tucker did not respond to a request for comment this week.
People who live in the village’s senior housing have also complained about children causing too much noise and Forest Playschool’s use of open fires at North Park Village Advisory Council meetings.
The current nature center in North Park exists thanks to residents successfully fighting for a deal with the city in 1989 to preserve the former tuberculosis sanatorium as a nature preserve and not a shopping center, according to the Chicago Reader.
A conservation easement protects the land through at least 2064.
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