When elementary students learn about all the ways people travel through a city on their way to work and school, they typically study streets, sidewalks and transportation.
At GEMS World Academy Chicago, a preschool through 12th-grade independent school in Chicago’s Lakeshore East neighborhood, this topic might become a springboard for deep dive into the concept of accessibility that takes students into city neighborhoods for an eye-level view of urban mobility.
It’s what is known in International Baccalaureate (IB) parlance as a “unit of inquiry” — a transdisciplinary, place-based study that blends core subjects with environmental studies, social justice and more.
“Students will talk about the concept of accessibility and then go out and do an exploration of the city to think critically about what is accessible and what is not,” explains Thomas Cangiano, head of school at GEMS. “They’re called field studies, which is different from a one-off field trip to a museum. It’s inquiry-based learning that is a hallmark of the IB education.”
Field studies create an intentional focus on Chicago through topics like neighborhood formation and segregation, economic development, politics and decision making, environmental concerns and cultural and intellectual history.
“We recognize that we can only be good global citizens if we are first good local citizens,” Cangiano says.
Problem-solving on an urban scale
Through a comparative framework, students at GEMS World Academy Chicago learn how one city works in order to better grasp how other cities work. Ultimately, GEMS is nurturing student problem-solvers who will recognize the real challenges in solving big problems.
“They learn that there are no easy, idealistic solutions. We really peel away how things get done to see how messy it really is, because we want them to understand what it takes,” Cangiano says. “We hope when they look around and see the issues of urban America or anywhere else in the world, they will have enough experience to make sense of what they are seeing and ask questions.”
To understand community engagement, each grade researches and selects a local social service organization to support and, with funds raised by an annual PTO gala, donates to the nonprofit.
“It might be a group that takes old bikes and fixes them up to donate to children,” Cangiano says. A lesson in economics becomes a deeper understanding of what city government does, what the federal government does, and about how churches and other nonprofits identify and fill a need.
Room for growth
GEMS World Academy Chicago has a culturally diverse student population of about 450. “We have a lot of families from different parts of the world, recent transplants to Chicago, and those who have lived here for a long time,” says Cangiano. “We are a very diverse community, and we take social justice and racial equity very seriously. It’s a part of what we are as an institution.”
In a new Middle and Upper School building scheduled to be completed this year, GEMS is creating room for additional students to experience a rich IB education within a local context.
“In addition to classrooms and high-tech labs, the new building will have a 525-seat performing arts center, a full regulation-sized gym with spectator seating — a luxury for a city school — and a student commons area on the roof that will be half AstroTurf and have a view of Lake Michigan,” Cangiano says. A two-level library and media arts center and maker space are also included.
This branded content also appeared in Chicago Parent’s fall 2020 magazine.