Laboratory Schools early childhood facility named for alumnus Earl Shapiro

An innovative new facility for young students will be named in honor of University of Chicago Laboratory Schools’ alumnus Earl Shapiro, Class of 1956, officials announced.

Earl Shapiro Hall on the Early Childhood Campus, set to open in fall 2013, will be a landmark addition to the Laboratory Schools. Custom designed for children from nursery school through second grade, the state-of-the-art facility will allow students outdoor access from classrooms, indoor spaces suited for a range of simultaneous activities, and thought-provoking settings that enhance the flexible interactions at the heart of the schools’ outstanding education.

Earl Shapiro Hall is a key component of the expansion of the Laboratory Schools, a multi-year initiative that will remake the Schools’ campus, creating an optimal learning environment at all levels while opening up new programs and maintaining a diverse student body.

“This is a rare opportunity for an institution like the Laboratory Schools to tailor its facilities to its nationally recognized educational program,” said University President Robert J. Zimmer. “The Shapiros have been leaders in seeing that potential and seizing that opportunity. It is fitting that Earl Shapiro’s memory will be associated for generations to come with this important center of learning.”

In 2008 the Shapiro family — Earl’s wife, Brenda, and their children Matthew, Benjamin, and Alexandra, who all attended the Schools — gave a $10 million gift to the Laboratory Schools, citing the unique combination of talented and diverse students, outstanding teachers and a focus on critical learning. Earl Shapiro died shortly after the family gave the gift in his honor.

“Our father, Earl would be very pleased with this building and the entire Lab+ project, as organizations thrive only if there is constant reinvestment,” said Matthew Shapiro, Class of 1984. “This building represents a reinvestment in not only the Laboratory Schools but the University, Hyde Park and the city of Chicago, all of which the Shapiro family holds dear. Associating our father's name with one of the finest educational institutions in the country is befitting of the man that he was.”

Earl Shapiro’s grandfather and three other family members had founded Maryland Cup, the company that produced the Sweetheart Cup brand disposable cup. After Maryland Cup was sold, Earl Shapiro founded Prairie Packaging and ran it with his sons until that company was sold in 2007. Earl was a longtime resident of Hyde Park.

Matthew Shapiro said that in both business and philanthropy, the family has held to values that were a part of their Lab educations — honesty, the importance of education, and the importance of giving back to the institutions that are important to you.

Earl Shapiro Hall will be located in the 5800 block of South Stony Island Avenue. The City Council approved the plans for the early childhood campus in November. Construction on the new building is scheduled to begin next fall, with completion projected for summer 2013.

The new building will bring together nursery school classes, which are currently conducted in two houses on Woodlawn Avenue, with nursery school, kindergarten, first and second grade classes, which now share Blaine Hall with higher grade levels on the Laboratory Schools’ main campus.

Designed by Joe Valerio of Valerio Dewalt Train and FGM Architects as the architect-of-record, Earl Shapiro Hall has been planned to optimize the Reggio Emilia approach to learning, an educational model that shares some of the ideas of Lab Schools’ founder John Dewey. In that approach, the learning environment is meant to be another teacher, stimulating natural curiosity and providing room for independent action.

“Our new campus began with a series of in-depth conversations among the architects and our faculty, who are national leaders in early childhood education. The result is going to be a beautiful and functional embodiment of their educational vision, which always puts the children first,” said David Magill, Director of the Laboratory Schools.

Classrooms in Earl Shapiro Hall will be large and flexible enough to allow children to move freely from structured academic work to art projects, to physical exercise, to team-building activities. Younger children will have direct access to outdoor play spaces from the classroom, allowing students to follow their natural curiosities freely and teachers to supervise different activities simultaneously.

As children develop, they will have access to lab and library space in the building, which also is designed with indoor play spaces, recycling stations and a variety of visual and tactile stimuli throughout the building.

Plans for the new facility were the subject of several public meetings co-hosted by the Schools and Ald. Leslie Hairston over the course of the calendar year.

The Early Childhood Campus is a key step in the expansion of the Laboratory Schools, where enrollment is projected to rise from 1,750 students in nursery through high school, to a projected 2,050 students. Planning is also underway for the renovation of the main campus on 59th Street.

The expansion will allow the schools to continue to maintain a diverse student body at a time of unprecedented demand both within the University community and among families from the neighborhood and across the city. School officials say that as Lab becomes one of the largest independent schools in the nation, it also will have the scale to invest in more specialized programs for students.

American philosopher and educator John Dewey founded the Laboratory Schools in 1896 to test and demonstrate his educational theories. Lab Schools has continued to be an integral part of the University of Chicago since its founding.