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Downers Grove

‘Incredibly unique’ Avery Coonley School is on display

Rebecca Malotke-Maslin, director of enrollment and financial aid, gives a presentation May 9 of the history and architecture of the Avery Coonley School.
Rebecca Malotke-Maslin, director of enrollment and financial aid, gives a presentation May 9 of the history and architecture of the Avery Coonley School.

DOWNERS GROVE – Growing up, Rich Kulovany thought of the Avery Coonley School as a mystery. He and his childhood friends wondered if it was a reform school, especially since a short, winding road off Maple Avenue led to the 11-acre campus surrounded by well-groomed greenery.

“We honestly didn’t know,” said Kulovany, a commissioner on the Downers Grove Village Council and a board member of the Downers Grove Historical Society.

His work with the historical society gave him the chance to step foot inside Avery Coonley for the first time just a couple of years ago, and from there, he found out the truth, debunking any myths he still carried as an adult.

Built in 1929, the Avery Coonley School was a pioneer for progressive education, often reshifting its curriculum to meet its students’ creative and pragmatic needs.

On May 9, many gathered at the school for a guided tour around the nearly 90-year-old grounds. Hosted by members of the historical society, including Kulovany, and Avery Coonley families, the evening event marked the final leg of the 2019 Founders Day celebration, a two-week-long affair dedicated to Downers Grove’s history.

More than 20 sites in Downers Grove are recognized as historical landmarks, but the Avery Coonley School is the only one that is officially marked on the National Register of Historic Places. The school is home to about 350 students and serves 37 communities across the Chicago area.

Before the tour began and the crowd dispersed into small groups, Rebecca Malotke-Meslin, director of enrollment and financial aid, shared Avery’s mission.

“I was going back through all of our history and revisiting some of these dates and names that don’t always come to mind as quickly,” she said. “And the one thing that’s remained constant throughout is innovation.

“Whether we’re talking about Queene Ferry Coonley, our founder, or we’re talking about our technology department or our cute, little toys, there’s an element of innovation, and it goes through the curriculum, and it goes through the architecture, and it goes through our entire story.”

Queene Ferry Coonley was a mother from Riverside, a nearby Chicago suburb. She sought better educational opportunities than what the early public school system could offer her young daughter Elizabeth in the 1900s.

Her vision focused on creating a comfortable space where children could feel at home, Malotke-Meslin said. That idea became a reality when she first built the Cottage School on her estate and commissioned renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design the Coonley Playhouse.

Inside the library, Malotke-Meslin pointed to the large windows, where students are greeted by the sky and the forest filled with tall trees that enclose the property. It’s not uncommon for teachers to host classes outside or for students to wander on the trails. An annual tradition at Avery Coonley involves students collecting syrup from the maple trees on school grounds, volunteer tour guide Barnali Khuntia said.

During Khuntia’s tour, Greg Elisha, a historical society member, used his cellphone to take a photo of the reflecting pool in the center of the cloister, which is considered “one of the most talked about spaces in our building,” Malotke-Meslin said.

“It’s just so incredibly unique,” Malotke-Meslin said. “Especially for pre-K through eighth-grade school, it looks like a space you find on a college campus.”

Khuntia showed Elisha and many others the little details that hold the Avery Coonley together. From the high wooden beams to the floor tiles to the fireplaces that skirt the edges of classrooms, these thoughtful designs contribute to Queene’s love for architecture and her dream of cultivating a positive learning environment.

There’s a classroom in the Avery that’s stacked with truncated octahedrons; students can climb up inside them and “camp out,” Malotke-Meslin said. While the original sets of tiny offices that were built in the 1970s were recently removed and auctioned off, the school has since replaced and renovated them.

Throughout the years, the Avery Coonley School has remained committed to its educational practices, always looking to take a step ahead in challenging its students. One of those practices is a dedication to the arts, a gateway to discovering self-confidence and passion.

As mothers of Avery students, Malotke-Meslin and Khuntia shared that their school’s long history, culture and diversity provide different avenues of thinking, learning and socializing for their children.

Khuntia and her family, who moved from Berwyn to Downers Grove, said what makes Avery stand out from other schools is the staff’s constant push to prioritize all of the students. They not only see the students’ potential, but they work with them to craft it and develop it. Those efforts, Khuntia said, go a long way, especially for students of color.

And attending the Avery Coonley School is an experience.

“It is an everyday part of their lives to be in nature on this campus and you’re so grateful for it, the beauty of it, the accessibility of it,” Malotke-Meslin said. “But the innovation continues and our students are taking advantage of all the technology that they can possibly want, while staying true to our roots of progressive education.”

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