During the pandemic, Chicago Public School teacher Janice Cowley realized that not all children had access to technology when schools went virtual.
After a tough year watching her students and their families struggle, Cowley purchased an RV in which she decked out to look like a classroom, and spent the summer traveling throughout the city to provide free educational resources and learning pods for students.
After seeing the success of the concept, Cowley quit her 17-year teaching job last year to open Urban Explorers of Chicago, a STEAM mobile microschool that serves students from preschool to fifth grade, with a mission of bringing STEAM to kids throughout all of Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Calling herself the modern-day Ms. Frizzle, Cowley offers her unique and innovative resources as an accompaniment to those who are currently homeschooled and as an extracurricular option to full time students.
“I want to make learning accessible and fun for all children,” says Cowley, who is in the process of getting the certification to recognize Urban Explorers of Chicago as an accredited school.
“I believe the education children receive should not depend on a zip code, family income or racial background. Children from all communities deserve a high-quality education with equitable learning experiences and resources tailored to children’s success.”
Cowley’s space allows for outdoor exploration, as her curriculum focuses largely on themes through the lens of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. Each week, she travels to a different neighborhood and teaches about its history, while allowing kids the explore area parks. In the case of inclement weather, Cowley partners with local businesses.
Cowley says she finds something magical about pulling up to a local park and bringing hands-on enrichment to students, versus teaching in a traditional classroom or behind a computer screen.
“There’s a wealth of learning that can happen in every neighborhood of Chicago,” says Cowley. “Kids love getting to go into a space with their clipboards, ready to learn and explore.”
The academic enrichment at Urban Explorers of Chicago is tailored to meet the needs of every child. This fall, students are focused on looking at community garden spaces and harvesting and learning about archaeological digs at The Field Museum. They’ll also conduct fall units in Bronzeville, Lincoln Park and Pilsen.
Cowley is following state standard COVID protocols, ensuring her “Urban Magic School Bus” is cleaned and sanitized daily. Parents and guardians must take their child’s temperature prior to arrival, and all students, parents, and staff are required to wear masks.
To date, Urban Explorers of Chicago has served more than 600 families in 12 states. Cowley plans on expanding in the next few months by getting more RV fleets.
“Although I have always been a teacher, now I get to do it on a larger scale, have fun with it and reach so many families,” says Cowley.
Learn more about Urban Explorers of Chicago by following them on Instagram.
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