Monday, February 28, 2011

Students and Principals Discuss School Improvement Issues at Feburary Summit

Students and Principals from throughout Chicago Public Schools gathered at Curie High School on Saturday, February 26, to discuss student perspectives on important school issues at the Harris Fellows Student/Principal Dialogue Summit.

Student leaders have expressed interest in meeting with principals to discuss the following issues: Standardized testing, teacher/student relationships, classroom management, and diversity in our schools.

After students gathered in the early morning to articulate their ideas and prepare presentations, principals joined the students to hear their insights and brainstorm ways to address their concerns.

In a session on standardized testing, students expressed concern that the tests do not assess them in a wholistic way. They are more interested in tests that assess their skills without being reduced to a set of multiple choice questions. Students also expressed concern that the tests drive instruction that does not build important life skills.

Students also discussed teacher/student relationships as well and identified teachers who take the time to get to know the students, understand their background, and demonstrate care for them are the most successful in the classroom.

The Student/Principal Dialogue Summit was the first of its kind. Students and principals left feeling inspired to continue the conversation. Princpals, in fact, signed a poster committing to attend follow-up summits.

Student voice continues to be an extremely important component of school improvement. Harris Fellows is interested in working with schools wanting to build organizational capacity to include student voice in decision-making at their schools. It's clear that students are ready for this important responsibility and the principals in attendance were clearly support of including student voice at their schools.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

CPS Students Practice Democracy During City Elections

Thousands of CPS high school students were actively involved in the process of democracy over the past two months as Chicago elected a new mayor and saw dozens of competive aldermanic races take place. As important as the political outcome was in the short term for the city, it is of critical importance for the work of democracy that our young people continue to be actively engaged in the process of elections.

CPS students culminated their work on the elections by serving as Student Election Judges throughout the city on election day, February 22. According to Brian Brady, Executive Director of Mikva Challenge, the ability of the city to call the election so early was a testament to the work of the students who did their work efficiently and effectively. More than 1,600 CPS high school students spent the day from 6:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m. staffing polling places in precincts throughout the city. At my own polling place, students from Amundsen and Rickover Naval Academy were on hand to greet voters and process their ballots. All told, CPS students delivered more than 21,000 hours of civic service to the city through their work.

Though much of the work happened on election day, students were active in the months and weeks leading up to the election as well. Several student groups held mock elections at their schools. At Steinmetz Academy, for example, 24 classrooms came to the library to vote in a mock election hosted by AVID students. Students also worked on election campaigns going door to door, phone banking, entering data. Their work was facilitated and supported by caring teachers or organizations like Mikva Challenge.

Students also attended mayoral forums where the candidates shared their view with voters. The Oriental Theatre hosted a major forum on February 17 sponosored by the League of Women Voters of Illinois. Dozens of CPS students attended and were enthralled by the proceedings.

In many schools across the city, students also created voter education materials to help neighborhood residents understand the issues and the candidates more clearly.

Though the city experienced a lower than expected voter turnout, our schools delivered a great turnout of high school students who will shape our democracy in years to come.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

CPS High School Students Problem Solve Environmental Issues

130 students from six southeast side CPS high schools came together at the Environmental Protection Agency in downtown Chicago on Friday, February 18, 2011. The students, all participants in the Calumet Is My BackYard project, gathered together with 10 environmental professionals and activitists to practice their 21st century skills: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication.

The environmental professionals presented a real world environmental problem such as invasive species removal, managing volunteers effectively, educating the public about the environment, and addressing the problem of deficient community green space, and then challenged the students to develop a strategy to address the problem.

Students worked together in teams to think critically about the component parts of the problem then used their skills of creativity and collaboration to develop potential strategies.

Environmental professionals from the Environmental Protection Agency, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Shedd Aquarium, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and the City of Chicago's Department of the Environment, shared both their career stories and the messy problems they content with on a daily basis.

Here's what students said about the day:

  • Today was exciting. I really enjoyed standing up and presenting my knowledge in front of all the schools participating in this passionate environmental science program.
  • Today was very helpful. I was never aware of how much we can do as students. It opened my mind to ways we can help the community.
  • Today was interesting because I've never had a day this long that had me so engaged in learning about different aspects about the environment. What was most interesting was talking about the fish. I also think that was the most helpful.

Student participants were joining together for the fourth all-school event of the CIMBY program. In addition, they are learning about the environment of the Lake Calumet area in their classrooms and providing important stewardship services at natural sites throughout Chicago's southeast side.

Juarez Students Create Documentaries of Civic Action

At Benito Juarez Community Academy, students are documentarians.

Mr Ehler's sophomore Reading and Language Arts class partnered with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to record the occupation of Whittier Elementary School by local mothers. Students investigated the issues of the struggle with the AFSC and learned interview and videography techniques. They then took their new skills to La Casita, a community organization, where the high school students talked to Whittier students, teachers, and the activists themselves including mothers who fought for a library in their children's school.

The parents of Whittier students were shocked to hear that their field house was declared to be unsafe and was marked to be demolished for a soccer field. Whittier didn't have a library and mothers thought that should take priority. So they occupied the field house for more than 40 days, sometimes with scarce food and water, to fight for a library in their school. Groups of mothers have accomplished great things in the Latino community; it was mothers on a hunger strike that got Little Village High School built.

Mr Ehler saw the Whittier struggle as a great way to teach his students the importance of social movements while teaching them important skills. With the help of the American Friends Service Committee, he was able to teach his young people to ask interview questions that were unbiased and focused. His students also learned the strength in having a voice in your community and what we can do when we work together.

Watch a Juarez student's interview of a Whittier student here:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

CPS Students Break Down Segregation through Hostelling International

Exchange Neighborhoods, an educational outreach program run by Hostelling International Chicago in partnership with Chicago Public School teachers, brings together students from different high schools to form relationships founded on mutual interests and a shared desire to work against mistrust, misperceptions, and ignorance.

To combat the cultural isolation of high schools and neighborhoods in Chicago, Exchange Neighborhoods participants visit each others’ schools to learn about each others’ cultures, schools, and neighborhoods. At the hostel, students cook and eat together, engage in team-building exercises, and share dorm-style rooms for an overnight. Throughout the program, students learn to appreciate their similarities and honor their differences.

Student outcomes are strong:

“I learned that being different is not a bad thing. While on this trip I learned you don’t have to be the same color to get along and try new things.” Chiquita, Harper High School

“Chicago Academy High School was a cool group of people. This helped me understand life more. It told me don’t be silent all your life, meet new people because you can learn new and different things about the person and their culture.” Faheed R., Orr High School

“I learned that even though many people are different from ourselves, when we all come together we get along and we find similarities.” Samantha, Kennedy High School

This school year, the following high schools are partnering with the hostel to bring Exchange Neighborhoods to their students: Taft, BEST, Juarez (twice), Harper, Kennedy, Orr, Chicago Academy, Kelvyn Park, Dyett, Douglass, and Hope.

If you would like to get on the waiting list to participate in the 2011-2012 school year, please contact Megan Johnson, Education Coordinator at HI-Chicago at