How independent schools teach kids about the world

Parents send their children to school with the expectation that they will learn about reading and math, but most also hope that their children will learn about the world and how to make it a better place.

Many independent schools in Chicago have truly embraced service learning projects to make those hopes reality.

For many independent schools, service learning goes to the core values and mission of the school. “We strive to instill in our students the importance of helping others, a desire to understand the world around them and the value of hard work,” says Colleen Everhart, a high school faculty member at the Chicago Waldorf School in Chicago.

The same is true at Francis Xavier Warde School in Chicago. “One of our four charisms is that this is a place where (people) are motivated by faith to serve others so the service component has been a priority from Day One,” explains Head of School Michael Kennedy, noting that the service learning structure includes not only students but also parents and faculty. “We need to model our expectations for our kids. You can’t lead where you yourself won’t go.”

Independent schools have the flexibility to pursue service learning opportunities that other schools may not have. “We are not tied to the classroom and not teaching ‘to the test’ so our students have the opportunity to develop both hands-on skills and social capacities that will support them in the real world,” Everhart says.

The flexibility means kids can engage in service learning close to home and globally.

“Our program really integrates language and areas studies under the umbrella and context of social justice,” says Christina Roches, a teacher at The Ancona School in Chicago, where students have been going to El Valor Children and Youth Service for more than a decade.

At Chicago City Day School, the service learning program focuses on the environment. Students work with Forest Preserve District of Cook County stewards and do restoration and water quality testing at the Miami Woods Forest Preserve.

“Student inquiries about the interconnectedness of the planet offered the school another springboard to further demonstrate ways to make a difference in a more global arena,” Jessie Goodwater says.

“Partnerships with the Shedd Aquarium and Reef Check put qualified City Day students on the front line of coral reef and habitat assessment and beach restoration in the Bahamas.”

Noted oceanographer and environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau’s use of the City Day data for his work culminated in a later visit to the school, where he spoke to the student community.

Students at Chicago Waldorf also travel abroad, doing two weeks of service this past spring at the Osa Conservation Center in Costa Rica. They built a sea turtle hatchery, reforested a stripped area of the rainforest and learned about the migratory paths of the big cats.

Regardless of the projects the school takes on, one commonality is that the students benefit. “The opportunity is life-changing,” says Goodwater. The students broaden their view of the world and gain new perspectives from their experiences.

“On these trips our students further develop their interest in the world by experiencing other cultures and other perspectives. They also frequently express awe at the beauty of the world and an appreciation of those who have made it their life’s work to make the world a better place,” says Everhart.

“We see our experiences at El Valor less as community service and more about learning, sharing and recognizing at the end of the day that the children with whom they were spending time are the same as children everywhere,” says Roches.

In addition to those benefits, service learning experiences can help the teachers better understand their students, too. “It’s extremely helpful for the teachers to experience our students in very different settings. We can see qualities and gifts that might not be as visible in the classroom,” Everhart says.

Part of Making the Grade, a special advertising education guide.

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