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Thursday, Nov. 18, 2004 09:20 am

Woman on a mission

Alyce Lyle: "Schools should go beyond the books and teach kids social skills."
Photo by Todd Spivak

In a large, two-story home on the southeast side, Alyce Lyle hopes to realize her dream of starting her own elementary school. A substitute teacher for nearly 20 years in Springfield's School District 186, Lyle has long wanted to provide kids an educational experience different from what is being offered in the city's public school system.

A painted wooden sign currently stands outside her home at 1430 S. Loveland Ave., announcing Lyle Elementary School. Inside there are long tables and small plastic chairs, tin canisters filled with unsharpened pencils, and piles of hardback books stacked along walls covered with colorful posters.

But Springfield's newest private school could remain idle for some time, as Lyle has only recently begun to recruit teachers and students for enrollment. "We're just getting started," she says.

While children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are welcome to enroll, part of the curricular focus will be on promoting African-American culture. In addition to teaching ordinary classes like math and science, Lyle aims to oversee training in African-American history and African languages.

"We're not going to just be talking about Columbus and Daniel Boone," says Lyle. "Blacks are made to learn white history and white literature. What's wrong with going to school to study black people?"

Also, rather than the conventional extracurricular classes taught at most schools, Lyle plans to offer an array of "special classes" aimed at helping to socialize children.

One class that she calls "Matter of Respect" would teach children to respect themselves, and their elders. Another titled "Street Talk" would promote non-violence by showing kids how to manage confrontations.

"There's a need for these types of classes," says Lyle. "Schools should go beyond the books and teach kids social skills."

The daughter of a sharecropper, Lyle was raised in a large, close-knit family with 11 siblings in Clarksville, Tenn., where she remembers attending classes in a one-room schoolhouse. She earned a degree in education at Illinois State University in Bloomington, then moved to Springfield in 1984.

When her children moved out of the building a few years ago, Lyle had the idea to convert it into a schoolhouse. She also operates a mission out of her home, but says the school will not be religious-affiliated.

Lyle hopes to attract 50 children to attend the school, which will include kindergarten through sixth grades. Tuition will cost $300 per month, or $275 per month for families enrolling two or more kids.

She is in the process of recruiting five fully accredited teachers, and plans to assume the role of school principal -- a position that requires no special certification for private schools. She has also sought the participation of UIS's Applied Study program, which is currently seeking a student to volunteer as a teacher's aide at the new school.

It is unusual for an individual, rather than a religious group or foundation, to launch a private school, says Becky Watts, an Illinois State Board of Education spokesperson.

Watts says that because Lyle plans to register with the board, her school will be subjected to certain state requirements that include updating student immunization records and maintaining fire and health safety requirements for the building.

"It's entirely voluntary," says Watts. "Anyone could start a school and not meet any of the state requirements."

Lyle has encountered some difficulty in publicizing her school. She was enraged by a Nov. 8 news report aired on WICS-TV (Channel 20), that she said sought to discredit her efforts. In the news segment, reporter Jessica English referred to Lyle as a "former substitute teacher" -- though she is certified through 2006.

Lyle also complains that the report focused negatively on the school's intended focus on African-American culture, and aired unflattering footage of the building that included cracked steps and cable wires on the floors.

In a letter Lyle accused English of "presenting this story in a manner to disrespect the African American community."

Reached by Illinois Times, English, a reporter at the station for more than two years, said she could not respond to Lyle's comments due to company policy. "We stand behind the story that Jessica produced," said Johnny Faith, WICS general manager. "We think it was fair and balanced."

For more information on Lyle Elementary School, call 217-522-2527.

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