How One Chicago School Makes a Difference

Kids typically enjoy participating in bake sales, food drives and fundraisers for a good cause. But do these one-off events really connect kids to their neighborhood and involve meaningful learning?

North Park Elementary School, an independent PK-8 school in Chicago founded by educators in 1980, has a better way to help kids really dig into the needs of their community.

“What differentiates North Park Elementary School (NPES) from our neighborhood public schools is our commitment to service learning, which is comprehensively embedded in our curriculum,” explains Emily Friend, director of teaching and learning at NPES. “All grade levels engage in a service-learning topic that goes along with their academic learning.”

From feeding the community to supporting refugees, here’s how students at NPES are making a big difference while gaining a wider understanding of the value of lifelong empathy for others.

Immersive service learning in each grade

While kindergartners study nutrition, the environment and health, they also make their own compost and manage the school’s four garden plots with help from an urban gardener who teaches the lifecycle of food. Through a partnership with Montrose Metra Community Gardens, they study the role of pollinators on environmental health. “In all of these ways, the students learn about the value of food quality and how to share fresh, locally grown produce with neighbors in need,” explains Friend.

By establishing intergenerational relationships with residents at the Selfhelp Home on Chicago’s north side, first graders at NPES buddy up with esteemed members of this community founded by Holocaust survivors. They sing songs and make crafts with their buddies, but they also interview them and learn about their impacts on their communities. “The students write about their buddies and the differences they have made in the world, then relate this to the differences they want to make in their own world,” says Friend.

In partnership with kindergartners, second graders at NPES work directly with Common Pantry, learning about food insecurity and delivering on foot produce grown in the Montrose Metra Garden plots dedicated to the pantry. “Students get a tour of the pantry and learn the myths and facts about hunger by witnessing the demographics of those served by the pantry,” says Friend. “It’s really eye-opening for the kids to learn about hunger in our neighborhood.” The students prepare sandwiches and pack 100 sack lunches each month and then deliver the meals directly to clients in small groups.

The refugee and immigration experience is examined by NPES third graders, who reflect on their own family heritages in relationship to modern issues surrounding immigration. They attend a children’s immigration film festival at the nonprofit independent Facets theater, participate in a series of panel discussions with immigrants from the community, and work with the drama teacher to write monologues from the perspectives of child immigrants. Working with World Relief Chicago, they learn about the everyday challenges of immigrant life. “The students put themselves in their shoes and imagine what would be hard about going to the grocery store or navigating day to day life in a country where you don’t speak the language, then they create and donate kid-to-kid guides of their favorite things about living in Chicago,” says Friend. These guides are put in the apartments of newly arrived families to welcome kids to Chicago.

With civics as their curriculum backdrop, fourth graders at NPES connect with local heroes of the Northcenter neighborhood, interviewing the local alderman to learn why he chose to run for public office. “Our students meet with young veterans from the Afghan and Iraq wars at the local Tattler Post and create felt poppies to distribute as a service element,” says Friend.

Environmental stewardship is the focus for fifth graders, who run the onsite compost program at NPES. They meet with Liam Donnelly, owner of WasteNot Composting and  local entrepreneur who, at age 15, started a composting company on his bicycle and now teaches the community about food waste and composting through his zero-emissions company. “One group of fifth grade girls went to a city council hearing to speak about the importance of funding the forest preserves, and LaBagh Woods in particular,” says Friend. “Students go to LaBagh Woods for clean-up events and teach our community about how to be better stewards of the environment.”

All of the work students do up to the point of middle school prepares them for developing their own passions and interests through service projects of their choice. They may choose topics such as animal welfare, literacy or environmentalism. “A big part of what they do is a critical examination of nonprofit organizations, then they choose ways to take action including off-site “Sharks Serves” days when they work directly with the organizations,” says Friend. “They study the UN Sustainable Development Goals and choose an aligned cause that interests them.”

No better way to build empathy

Ultimately, through a focus on service learning, students at NPES take risks, interact with the world around them and recognize the importance of doing good and interesting work to build the critical skill of empathy.

“We don’t care about what we don’t feel about,” explains Friend. “If we don’t feel a personal connection, we don’t feel empathy. We can all spout facts about hunger, but that doesn’t get at your heart like walking into a pantry and meeting kids who don’t have enough to eat. Until you feel the true connections, you can talk about an issue all you want, but the experiential, hands-on immersive element gets at the heart and not just the mind.”

North Park Elementary School is dedicated to raising confident, self-reliant individuals, in partnership with families, while instilling a sense of curiosity, a passion for learning and a commitment to having an impact on the broader community. For more information, visit

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.
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