The Laboratory Schools were founded by American educator John Dewey in 1896 in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. Calvin Brainerd Cady was director of the music department under Dewey. The school began as a progressive educational institution that goes from nursery school through 12th grade.
The Laboratory Schools consists of two interrelated campuses. The Historic Campus, located at 1362 East 59th Street, fills two full city blocks. It houses grades 3–12 (about 1,200 students) in five connected buildings: Blaine Hall (built in 1903), Belfield Towers (1904), Judd Hall (1931), the high school (built in 1960), the middle school (1993), and Gordon Parks Arts Hall (2015). Two connected gymnasiums also sit on this campus, Sunny Gym (built in 1929) and Kovler Gymnasium (built in 2000) and students have access to both Scammon Garden and Jackman Field.
In September 2013, Lab opened Earl Shapiro Hall on its new Early Childhood Campus located at 5800 South Stony Island Avenue. This new building, designed by Valerio Dewalt Train and FGM Architects, is home to approximately 625 children in nursery through second grade. The building is named for Earl Shapiro, who graduated from Lab in 1956.
The school has over 1,700 students currently enrolled, though there are plans to increase the size. It is considered one of the top preparatory schools in the United States, reflected in the Wall Street Journal's findings that the school is amongst the top five feeder institutions in the nation for elite colleges. It has been heralded as one of the more diverse independent schools with about 40% students of color and over 44 nationalities represented.
Today the school is divided into a Nursery School (Pre-K and Kindergarten), Primary School (grades 1 and 2), Lower School (grades 3 through 5), Middle School (grades 6 through 8), and High School (grades 9 through 12). Many children begin the school in nursery and continue through their high school graduation, and 75% of applications are for nursery school or 9th grade.
In 2007, the school was ranked fourth in the nation for its record of sending graduates to elite universities and colleges.
U-High offers more than 150 different classes, all are college preparatory in nature and there are 17 Advanced Placement or Advanced Topic classes. High school students may also take classes at the University of Chicago and about 20 do so each year. The school maintains four separate libraries to support its teaching and learning and the library holdings top 110,000 volumes.
High school students may choose from 40+ different clubs and activities. U-High students are extremely invested in academic extra-curriculars. The high school math team and the science teams are regular contenders for and winners of state titles. The school's newspaper (The Midway) and the yearbook (U-Highlights) regularly win regional and national awards, as does its arts magazine, Renaissance. Other popular activities include theater, ethnic clubs, Student Council, policy debate, and Model UN. The Model UN team is consistently ranked among the top in the nation, and is world-renowned for its competitive excellence. It was recently ranked the #2 High School Model UN team in the United States. In addition, the Debate Team has won numerous national circuit tournaments, and is unofficially considered to be in the Top 20 nationwide. Furthermore, U-High's Math and Science teams consistently win and place at Regional and State competitions, respectively.
The school's athletic teams, the Maroons, compete in the Independent School League (ISL) and are members of the Illinois High School Association (IHSA). The middle school fields 15 teams in baseball, basketball, cross country, soccer, track, and girls volleyball. The high school has more than 25 teams: baseball, basketball, cross country, fencing, golf, soccer, swimming, tennis, indoor and outdoor track & field, and girls volleyball. All operate with a "no cut policy," meaning any student who wishes to participate may, and nearly 65% of U-Highers participate on at least one team.
The high school's extracurricular activities occasionally make national and international news. For example, in 1990 then-Gov. Thompson declared a "Matthew Headrick Day" and the US House made a proclamation when then-student Headrick appeared on talk shows including Today after winning the Westinghouse. In response to the award, the Chicago Tribune wrote: "this ... is a ... school where being on the math team ... can actually enhance one's social status." The Tribune's coverage was controversial because, as noted previously, U-High's extracurricular activities, including the math team, operate on a "no cut policy," and therefore participation was unlikely to confer social status. The faculty responded by posting a banner that humorously read: "The Few. The Proud. The U-High Math Team. Conferring social status since 1990."
Lab teachers are recognized as leaders in their field. Here are a few of the notable recognitions and teachers who have worked at Lab:
• Eight Lab teachers have received Chicago’s prestigious Golden Apple Award—more than from any other school in the city. (2009 Christina Hayward; 2007 David Derbes; 2004 Rosa McCullagh; 1994 Michael (Spike) Wilson; 1992 Jan Yourist; 1989 Catharine Bell; 1987 Hanna Goldschmidt; 1986 Randy Fowler.) Others have received the Kohl McCormick Early Childhood Teaching Award.
• A MacArthur “genius” award and the Erikson Institute Award for Service to Children are among the achievements of author/teacher Vivian Paley, who spent most of her career at Lab. (Lessons from her acclaimed book You Can’t Say You Can’t Play shape Lab’s approach.)
• Created and funded in honor of Zena Sutherland (a former U. of C. faculty member and still considered among the world’s most influential scholars of young people’s literature), the annual Sutherland Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature is one of the only student-selected book awards in the United States.
• Lab teachers contributed to the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project, the largest university-based mathematics curriculum project in the country. Their results included the nationally acclaimed Everyday Mathematics texts for elementary school students and Transition Mathematics, a middle school pre-algebra text.
• Blue Balliett, author of Chasing Vermeer, The Wright Three, and The Calder Game, based her children’s mysteries on her experiences teaching students at Lab.
• Lab classrooms are routinely visited by teachers and administrators from around the world who wish to experience first-hand the way Lab teachers integrate Dewey’s philosophy into their classroom experience.