For four weeks in July, 11 Illinois State University College of Education students participated in the National Center for Urban Education’s (NCUE) Summer Teacher Education Partnership for Urban Preparation (STEP-UP) program. Though much of the 2021 program remained virtual due to continuing COVID-19 protocols, NCUE STEP-UP staff created both in-person and virtual service-learning opportunities for this year’s fellows.
“Service-learning has been such a significant part of STEP-UP because it allows fellows to connect what they’ve learned about classrooms and teaching to the reality of being an active participant in a community,” Cailynn Stewart, STEP-UP director and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher, said. “Service-learning allows fellows to look at community through a new lens. Fellows have the opportunity to immerse themselves in communities surrounded by leaders and members to enhance their learning about what makes the community unique, gather ideas on ways that their future classrooms can partner with community-based organizations, and understand how a community can contribute to student learning. All of these aspects are significant as they prepare to teach in Chicago Public Schools.”
Housed in the College of Education, NCUE’s Step-Up program is a monthlong, intensive immersion program that includes four main components that students complete within their assigned Chicago neighborhood: a teaching experience, a project with a local community organization, an experience with a host family, and professional development sessions given by community scholars and practicing Chicago Public Schools teachers. In addition, each Friday, fellows selected from a variety of in-person and virtual service-learning projects that were already underway within Chicago communities. This experience of volunteering alongside community members is a critical part of understanding urban communities from an asset-based lens, a crucial component for aspiring teachers.
Three community organizations offered in-person service-learning opportunities for STEP-UP fellows: Breakthrough in East Garfield Park, SkyART in South Chicago, and Lead with Love in Auburn Gresham. Lead with Love also provided virtual options for fellows who wanted to remain fully remote during the summer program. Read on to learn more about the different projects and partners that STEP-UP fellows supported throughout July.
Breakthrough (breakthrough.org) is a nonprofit community organization in East Garfield Park on the west side of Chicago that partners with community members to offer support and programming in the focus areas of education and youth development, workforce development, health and wellness, housing, and violence prevention. Breakthrough offered STEP-UP fellows service-learning opportunities in the Fresh Market, a client-choice food pantry, as well as at the HomeCourt program that takes place each Friday evening throughout the summer providing safe outdoor spaces for activities with youth and families.
Lead with Love (leadwithlovechi.org) is a nonprofit community outreach organization on the south side of Chicago, founded by Illinois State College of Education graduate and current CPS Special Education teacher Lizzy Carroll, that provides a safe space for young people looking to take action and serve their community. The goal is to actively address injustices prevalent within disinvested communities with a focus on education, physical health, mental health, and exposure/employment. Each week fellows worked either in-person or virtually on one of these core initiatives.
The first Friday, the in-person fellows worked with Lead with Love’s partner E’a Williams and her organization THUG-Hippie (The Healing You Give) to transform a community school bus into a mobile healing studio that will offer yoga, mindfulness exercises, massage therapy, and other holistic practices. Fellows scraped, painted, and worked on the interior and exterior of the bus while the virtual fellows created informational brochures and resource provider lists for the south side in the same target areas. The second Friday in-person fellows painted and installed a Free Little Library placed outside Westcott Elementary in Auburn Gresham while the virtual fellows created educational games/activities that can be printed and put into the library for families to practice at home. On the final Friday, virtual fellows researched donation and funding opportunities for the organization, creating a comprehensive list of relevant grants/funds for Lead with Love.
Sarell Booker, Illinois State physical education major, participated in all of the virtual service-learning events and shared, “I appreciate Lead with Love for allowing us to contribute to the work they’re actively doing,” Booker said. “(They) allowed for us fellows to create mental health awareness brochures and literacy activities for the community Free Little Library. Knowing that this work is actively being paid forward to the community has been truly worthwhile, and I have been proud to assist.”
Nicolas Cima, Illinois State special education major, participated in both in-person activities for Lead with Love and then joined Breakthrough to support HomeCourt.
“The service-learning on Fridays were the highlight of each passing week in the program, not only because of the in-person opportunity, but for the impact that each project left on me,” Cima said. “From renovating a bus into a mobile healing studio to painting a community library box, and even being a bounce house bouncer at a lively block party, I interacted and connected with the communities I entered, and I was always welcomed with open arms. In fact, a particular hug from one of the community leaders sticks out as a moment in my mind about what building community means. They certainly lead with love, and that has left me awe-inspired to do the same.”
SkyART (www.skyart.org) is an art-based community organization in the South Chicago neighborhood that centers on creativity and provides free, safe, open spaces where people are empowered through creating art. Over two Fridays, fellows worked to sort a vast collection of art books, organizing the bookshelves for easier use by staff and students, as well as creating a set of books to give to community members. In addition, fellows cut out magazine pictures and words to create art supplies for collages used in SkyART’s classes inside detention centers.
Courtney Plattner, Illinois State bilingual education major, participated both in person at Breakthrough and SkyART and virtually with Lead with Love throughout the month.
“STEP-UP service learning was an incredible way to see and experience the community coming together to make a difference,” Plattner said. “Listening to the stories of the organization leaders and hearing their passion and commitment to serving others was truly inspiring. Getting to work alongside them for a day was well worth the two-hour drive and has been one of my favorite parts of STEP-UP.”
Savastiana Valle, Illinois State art education major, had a similar feeling. “I think the service-learning has provided so much insight into what communities need throughout Chicago,” Valle said. “Helping out E’a and THUG-Hippie was such a fun and powerful experience to be a part of. I do love that I had the chance to not only be at SkyART but to be there two weeks in a row. It was so much fun to be able to create connections, and just stepping into that space gave me so much inspiration for how I want to model my classroom with so much love and support.”
Service Learning is a critical part of the NCUE STEP-UP summer program. Speaking from her multiple perspectives as a former STEP-UP fellow, a current teacher, and the founder of the nonprofit Lead with Love, Lizzy Carroll notes, “Service learning helps foster the strong relationship that is needed amongst schools and communities. When pre-service teachers engage in service learning, they get to build a rapport with community members and develop an understanding of the community`s needs. This helps them become community-centered teachers, prioritizing breaking down barriers that could hinder learning in the classroom.” Gynger Garcia from Breakthrough, ISU NCUE community partner, also articulates it well, “Service learning gives education students frontline exposure to the community. It positions them to locally serve, observe, meet new folks and ask questions! This can truly help students become aware, reflect and grow in their teaching journey and beyond.”
By all accounts, 2021 service learning was a success as STEP-UP fellows supported community organizations in-person and virtually while also learning firsthand about the wide network of people in Chicago that work tirelessly to make a difference and positively impact their neighborhoods!